Lionsgate // 1990 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Ryan (Retired) // August 31st, 2004
It's the wackiest plausibly deniable airline in the Southeast Asia theater of operations!
Somewhat lost in the spate of Vietnam-related films in the late 1980s to early '90s (e.g. Platoon, Good Morning, Vietnam, and such) was 1990's Air America, a slightly dark action/comedy in the vein of M*A*S*H or Catch-22. The film starred Mel Gibson, who had recently vaulted to superstardom via the first two Lethal Weapon films. Upon release, the film generated more attention for its subject matter -- the activities of the titular Air America, an airline covertly owned and operated by the CIA and used as a tool of its intelligence activities -- than for its artistic content. Although I'm unaware of any groundswell of demand for it, Lions Gate has seen fit to re-release the film on DVD, with an all-new digital print and some documentary extras.
It's 1969, and Billy Covington (Robert Downey, Jr., Chaplin, Natural Born Killers, jail) has a problem. He's been fired from yet another flying job (this time, a job flying a traffic helicopter for a Los Angeles radio station) for misbehavior (this time, taunting a trucker from the chopper at an altitude of about 10 feet). The FAA has revoked his pilot's license, and he's up a creek without a paddle. A solution arrives in the form of a well-dressed man from the government recruiting pilots for a small airline operating in Laos called Air America. Air America has nothing to do with the war, which isn't in Laos; in fact, there are no American operations in Laos at all. So it's a perfectly safe job. Billy signs up.
He arrives in Laos to find things...well, a bit different than what was promised. Air America is there, all right. It's a big operation, working from a secret Air Force base deep inside Laos. But it's also a cover operation for the CIA, spending as much time running covert missions that further the cause of the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia as running its normal schedule. Its pilots face danger on a daily basis, as everyone seems to want to take a shot at them. Some of the warlords are angry because the CIA is in cahoots with other warlords; the communist Pathet Lao insurgents are angry because the planes are American, and the native hill people are angry because they're just plain old angry natives. Billy is befriended and guided by one of the veteran pilots, a fellow named Gene Ryack (Gibson) who's almost, but not quite, lost touch with the concepts of "danger" and "risk" after his time in the jungle.
Along the way, Billy discovers that the CIA is hiding a dirty secret in the Laotian foliage -- they're actually turning a blind eye to, and in some cases quietly assisting in, the rampant Golden Triangle drug trade. It's all rationalized away by the CIA officers running the airline -- the Oliver North-like Major Lemond (Ken Jenkins, Matewan, I Am Sam) and his young aide-de-camp Rob Diehl (David Marshall Grant, The Stepford Wives (2004)) -- as being necessary to fund the war against Communism. Billy isn't so sure, as the opium seems to be more important than anything else, including the pilots and the Laotian people.
Meanwhile, an earnestly do-gooding Midwestern senator (Lane Smith, From The Earth to the Moon, My Cousin Vinny) is visiting the country looking for dirt to uncover. Lemond and Grant are tasked with introducing him to the local CIA-approved warlord, General Soong (Bert Kwouk -- Kato from the Pink Panther movies!), and shepherding him around Laos, but still keeping him from finding out about Soong's elaborate opium operation.
But remember -- none of this exists, they're not actually there, and none of this actually happened.
Air America was nothing if not controversial when released. After all, the film implicitly suggested that the U.S. government actively participated in the drug trade as part of an effort to fund certain aspects the Vietnam War. No less than the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that the film was an affront to the memory of the soldiers who fought and died in Vietnam. (You can now find this comment in the dictionary next to the word "hyperbole.") Unfortunately for the nay-sayers, the bulk of the evidence that has emerged since this film debuted in 1990 indicates that the CIA probably did turn a blind eye to drug trafficking at the very least, and it's certainly plausible to believe that they may have assisted certain "friendly" elements within the Laotian military who also happened to have side businesses in the poppy trade.
Unfortunately, all this historical hullabaloo, which can and will be debated for years to come, obscured the key question: is Air America a good movie? The answer is -- sort of.
Air America is no M*A*S*H. It falls all too easily into the typical Hollywood formulae for action pictures: Grizzled Vet Mentors Young Buck; Don't Trust Your Government; Cynical Antihero Redeems Self At End; People Before Profit. It's relatively predictable throughout. The Gene character played by Gibson is just Martin Riggs (from Lethal Weapon) with a pilot's license -- we've seen it all before.
But that doesn't make it a bad film. In fact, overall it's pretty entertaining. It's got a lot of great airplane-related stunt and effects work. By most accounts, it's a pretty accurate depiction of the real Air America operations as they were in the late '60s. The film is chock-full of non-famous but interesting actors playing the side roles -- guys like Tim Thomerson (Trancers), Marshall Bell (Total Recall), David Bowe (UHF), and Art LaFleur (The Replacements). They're all about as colorful and quirky as the original pilots likely were -- these guys were just plain different from the rest of us. It's a very soft "R" movie, due mainly to language, that (for a war film) doesn't have much violence at all. Gibson and Downey work extremely well together -- per the commentary, they formed a good friendship on this film that persists to this day. There are some laugh-out-loud funny moments in the film that lighten the tone (which is, as stated above, somewhat dark). And -- Kato! How can you not love Kato, even when he's not playing Kato? Overall, it's a pretty inoffensive piece of entertainment. Unless you're the Wall Street Journal, I guess.
This particular transfer is state-of-the-art: a vivid HD picture for a film that's pretty colorful to begin with. There's a tiny bit of grain at times, but nothing too intrusive. Sound comes from a solid but unspectacular 5.1 Dolby Digital track available in English only; a 2.0 Dolby Surround track is also available. Subtitles are provided in English and Spanish.
The commentary track, done by the film's writer/co-producer John Eskow, was surprisingly good. Eskow -- who bears a frightening resemblance to baseball writer Peter Gammons -- has a unique perspective on the film thanks to his dual role. With his writer's cap on, he's able to impart some insight as to character development, sources for various plot elements, and such. He can also tell producer tales about how the film was made, how much certain stunts cost, and how the filmmakers responded to the controversy over the film. He's also good at giving us a lot of information without talking too much and boring us.
Overall, this "Special Edition" isn't all that special. Yes, the transfer is nice -- but the extras are on the thin side. Trailers and TV spots (apparently Canadian TV spots -- go figure) are provided -- whoop di dee. A brief (five minutes or so) interview reel from the time of the film's release doesn't provide much insight. It is, however, the only source of commentary from Gibson and Downey, who obviously didn't participate in the creation of this edition. Hence, the "new" documentary -- "Return Flight" -- only features the supporting actors and various members of the crew.
To its credit, the new documentary addresses the "did the CIA help run drugs" issue head-on by enlisting two historians to comment on it. One says "no way," the other "of course"; however, neither is given much time to actually discuss why they feel that way. A separate documentary on the subject would have been nice. The plane nut in me would also have enjoyed some information on the aircraft used in the film. But I'm probably expecting way too much.
Finally, as mentioned above, apparently some people feel that the film, by raising the possibility that the CIA was corrupt and ran drugs, is a disgrace to the servicemen and servicewomen who served in Vietnam. Given that the film is nothing if not a vivid illustration of how these pilots (who were also serving their country) flew repeatedly in conditions that were insanely dangerous without any pension, any recognition, or any real monetary compensation, I personally can't comprehend how this could be; but consider yourself warned.
If it's a non-Mad Max action-adventure film, and it has Mel Gibson in it, you pretty much know what you're getting. Quality, but decidedly unchallenging, entertainment. Air America is no different. You won't be watching it again and again, but you won't be sorry you saw it. It's good to learn about the little footnotes of history like this, too.
These guys had it rough over there in Laos. I think they've done enough. They're all "sentenced" to flying 747s on cushy NY-London routes.
Review content copyright © 2004 David Ryan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Pre-Flight -- Storyboards and Previsualization
* "Air America -- Flight Log"
* "Return Flight -- Revisiting Air America"
* Feature Commentary
* Theatrical Trailer
* TV Spots