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Air America
(1990)

Post-Good Morning Vietnam, a comedy based on the CIA’s Air America operation in Laos probably seemed like a dead cert. Vietnam was doing solid box office, serious (Platoon, Full Metal Jacket) or funny. The subject matter was rich enough for either a satirical take (the M*A*S*H approach), or a straight one (paging Oliver Stone). Unfortunately, the result lacks substance on any level, the politics and illegality of the activities reduced to window-dressing as the action plays out on the broadest and most formulaic of levels.

Which is pre-amble to say I recall enjoying the film quite a bit at the time. The trailer (below) is tellingly brief (as in, don’t show too much of what the movie consists of), but fairly reflective of the tone. Crucially, however, it makes the film look much more agreeably irreverent than it is.

Based on Christopher Robbins’ book of the same name, this was originally a Richard Rush (The Stunt Man and, er, Color of Night) project – he has co-screenplay credit – before going through a number of directors and leads (Costner and Connery were the most prestigious). Most likely it was more barbed/confrontational at that outset (1985) than five years later.

Sure, the film takes in CIA moneymaking from the opium trade (working complicitly with General Soong – played by none other than Burt “Cato” Kwouk!), pilots involved in arms dealing and buffoonish propaganda campaigns, all the while claiming innocence (“There is no war in Laos”) and that Air America is purely a civilian outfit. But these elements sweep by with blockbuster sheen and rehearsed outrage (from newbie employee Billy - Robert Downey Jr.). Essentially, the result is an incredibly lazy take on provocative material.

Carolco Pictures, Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna’s production company that finally went belly-up thanks to Cutthroat Island, had two years of pictures with mediocre returns behind it when the summer of 1990 arrived. Fortunately, they had a hit with the hugely expensive Total Recall. But Air America was yet another disappointment; Gibson didn’t come cheap and, with the extensive location shooting and stunt work, the budget ballooned. With a reported cost of $35m, it made only $31m at the US box office. Meanwhile, Gibson’s other film that summer, the cheaper Bird on a Wire, proved a surprise hit for Universal.

Journeyman director Roger Spottiswoode might well have got the nod due to the more overtly political Under Fire, but his last film was Turner and Hooch. He’d go on to preside over troubled Bond shoot Tomorrow Never Dies. Spottiswoode stages the action competently enough, and Roger Deakins photography is never less than splendid, but the watered-down nature of the production extends from the script and director down.

Gibson’s cynical Gene is Mel on autopilot “crazy” mode, all quips and daredevil sub-Martin Riggs antics (just without the psychosis); yet he takes Billy to his home where he is revealed as a nice family man (with a Laotian wife and child). It doesn’t add up because it’s writing by committee.  The substance of the last half concerns Billy’s grudge against General Soong, and its wholly formulaic. Downey Jr. doesn’t even try to fit in with the period, all ‘80s hair and attitude (he reportedly doesn’t think much of the film, labeling it “Air Generica”). Of course, a script like this needs a love interest so beautifully coiffured Nancy Travis has a random role as an aid worker (guess what, the big climax requires a choice between saving refugees or arms!)

The shame is that the supporting cast are mostly very good. Art LaFleur and Tim Trancers Thomerson are great as grizzled old pilots, even when required to reel of “Ker-razee!” dialogue (one particularly “trying too hard” bit has Thomerson and Gibson fighting over a children’s colouring book). Ken Jenkins’ Major and Lane Smith’s Senator also make the most of the thin and laboured material that forms the “meat” of the political intrigue.

 ‘60 classics tunes are deposited clumsily throughout, the slack taken up by a horrifically bad score from Charles Gross. The soundtrack album (which features none of the score) is actually pretty good, although it omits the most fun item, a cabaret version of Horse with No Name.

It’s been noted that the plot of the first Lethal Weapon featured antagonists involved in Air America; if it inspired Mad Mel, it wasn’t enough to make a good film (although with a war movie record that includes We Were Soldiers and The Patriot, it may be fortunate that Air America goes as far as it does). The not-really-all-that whackiness extends to “What Happened Next” titles at the end (à la Animal House) that just go to emphasis how neutered the whole affair is.

**1/2



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