They don't make 'em like this anymore, laments Judge David Johnson.
Our reviews of Airwolf: Season Two (published February 14th, 2007), Airwolf: Season Three (published June 6th, 2007), Airwolf: Season Four (published February 1st, 2011), and Airwolf: The Movie (published August 18th, 2011) are also available.
Airwolf was a treasured memory of my childhood TV watching. The adventures of Stringfellow Hawke and Dominic Santini tooling around in their invincible attack chopper scratched that boyhood itch to watch helicopters blow up. But it was with bittersweet feelings that I heard the show was bound for the land of the digital; it was cool to have these memories at my fingertips, but would it end up being the dated disappointment so many other beloved series from long ago turned out to be (*cough*cough* 21 Jump Street)?
With shock and joy, let me proclaim: Airwolf: Season 1 is even better than I remember it!
Facts of the Case
"Airwolf" is the code name for the state-of-the-art Mach 1 assault helicopter developed by a clandestine wing of the CIA called the Firm. The project, headed by the white-suit-clad head honcho "Archangel" (Alex Cord) was supposed to give the definitive edge in air assault to the United States.
But when Airwolf's designer steals the helicopter, blows up the Firm's HQ, and bolts to Libya, Archangel is left with a mess only one man can clean up: Stringfellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent). Hawke is the only other pilot to have flown Airwolf, but he's a tortured recluse, preferring to live in his mountain cabin and play the cello on his pier.
Eventually, Hawke agrees to recover Airwolf, on the condition that the Firm throws all of its resources into finding his lost brother, St. John, who has been MIA in Vietnam for over a decade. With his best friend and copilot Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine), Hawke succeeds in recapturing the super-aircraft (the details of which are expounded upon in the pilot, a 90-minute television movie). But Hawke throws Archangel a curve ball when, instead of returning it to the government, he hides it, using the chopper as leverage until the CIA produces St. John. So now the Firm and Stringfellow Hawke have a tenuous agreement: While Archangel keeps the feds off of Hawke's back, the renegade cellist/pilot will fly covert missions.
And this almost always leads to some poor schmucks' getting blown to cinders courtesy of one of Airwolf's belly-mounted missiles. But that's what puts butts in the seats!
Airwolf rocks! Seriously, it's frickin' great! Hey, I'm just as stunned writing these sentiments as you no doubt are reading them. Sure, I remember getting a kick out of the show way back in the day, but what are the chances it was actually good?!
I'll be the first to admit I wasn't exactly flush with critical discernment in the mid '80s, and I mainly thought the show was awesome because, well, the helicopter was awesome. Airwolf was a true action show, one with balls, where people died and political correctness took a back seat to a pair of badass chain guns. This wasn't the gunfire-happy, zero-body-count endeavor of The A-Team, or the happy-go-lucky crime fighting of MacGyver. Airwolf is red-meat action bliss. The Libyans were bastards, the Soviet Union was the evil empire, and Fidel Castro was a douchebag. Good luck finding that kind of stuff on our morally relativistic airwaves these days.
Stringfellow Hawke, played by a pre-public-displays-of-drunkenness Jan-Michael Vincent, is a cool hero, aside from some of those corny cello-playing bits. He's a gruff, narrow-eyed curmudgeon (Squintfellow Hawke may be a more appropriate moniker) with a black-and-white worldview. Ernest Borgnine as Dom Santini elicits mixed feelings. Yeah, you need his lighthearted demeanor to balance Hawke's tight-lipped stoicism, but I can't help but think that every time Hawke and Dom take to the air in Airwolf, it's Someone's Grandfather riding shotgun. Dom just doesn't seem to square up. Plus, those eyebrows look like two deceased mongooses were stapled to his forehead.
Archangel is the gimmicky character, parading around in white outfits with his glasses-eyepatch, flying in white helicopters, and escorted by a bodacious coworker, also dressed in white. Though the Firm is highly reminiscent of the Foundation from that other '80s show about a loner and a state-of-the-art vehicle, I dig it—partly because of my bizarre fascination with fictional clandestine agencies.
And speaking of Knight Rider, which preceded Airwolf and almost certainly influenced the show, how does KITT compare to its titular battle copter rival? As characters go, where KITT had the voice and demeanor of a tight-ass male butler of questionable sexual orientation, I'd think Airwolf, if she could speak, would have the voice and demeanor of a hard-ass female biker of questionable sexual orientation.
All eleven episodes of Season One, including the 90-minute pilot, are dumped quite unceremoniously onto two two-sided discs. Here's what Season One has to offer:
• Airwolf: The Movie
Dominic Santini says: "I like it, String, I like it a lot!"
• "Daddy's Gone a Hunt'n"
Dominic Santini says: "F*** those commies, String!"
• "Bite of the Jackal"
Dominic Santini says: "Hey, String, what's she doing in my seat?!"
"Proof Through the Night"
Dominic Santini says: "Thanks for that lesson in multiculturalism, String. Still, though, f*** those commies!"
• "One Way Express"
Dominic Santini says: "Who you calling old, String?!"
• "Echoes from the Past"
Dominic Santini says: "Hmmm, String, that's a little far-fetched if you ask me."
• "Fight Like a Dove"
Dominic Santini says: "You know the one thing I hate more than commies, String? Nazis! F*** them Nazis!"
• "Mad Over Miami"
Dominic Santini says: "Hey Fidel! Eat this! Right, String?"
• "And They Are Us"
Dominic Santini says: "Where the hell is Limbawe, String?!"
• "Mind of the Machine"
Dominic Santini says: "You know what, String? I don't trust them computers! In my day we targeted enemy aircraft with a pair of shoelaces and a protractor!"
• "To Snare a Wolf"
Dominic Santini says: "Hey String! Are you finished with those Doritos?!"
I actually enjoyed each of these episodes. Again, let me restate: this show is better than I remember it. Though stock footage is used here and there, and some Airwolf stuff is recycled, the aerial scenes are great. When you add the liberal use of pyrotechnics, it's obvious this show must have cost a sackful of nickels to produce.
Sadly, the series would be overhauled in 1987, its budget obviously slashed, and aerial photography replaced with crude proto-computer graphics. But it was fun while it lasted.
Universal went the minimalist route here. From the shoddy front-end menu system to the boring packaging, this set cries "rushed," or, worse, "who gives a crap." Visually, the transfer is spotty and aged, with some scenes profoundly grainy. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix is endurable, and improves when decoded with Dolby Pro Logic II. Basically, it looks like you're watching this show in 1984. That's not a compliment.
And about those extras? They must be hidden in the Valley of the Gods, too.
Rarely have I enjoyed a blast from the past as much as I have Airwolf: Season 1. For the first time, my prepubescent television sensibilities were on the money!
Not guilty. But Universal needs some blanketing chain gun fire on the corporate headquarters for its lamentable presentation.
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