Skip to main content

VSF, man. VSF!


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



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

I'm a sort of travelling time expert.

Doctor Who Season 12 – Worst to Best
Season 12 isn’t the best season of Doctor Who by any means, but it’s rightly recognised as one of the most iconic, and it’s easily one of the most watchable. Not so much for its returning roster of monsters – arguably, only one of them is in finest of fettle – as its line-up of TARDIS crew members. Who may be fellow travellers, but they definitely aren’t “mates”. Thank goodness. Its popularity – and the small matters of it being the earliest season held in its entirety in original broadcast form, and being quite short – make it easy to see why it was picked for the first Blu-ray boxset.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
(SPOILERS) I think I knew I wasn’t going to like The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first five minutes. And that was without the unedifying sight of open-heart surgery that takes up the first four. Yorgos Lanthimos is something of a Marmite director, and my responses to this and his previous The Lobster (which I merely thought was “okay” after exhausting its thin premise) haven’t induced me to check out his earlier work. Of course, he has now come out with a film that, reputedly, even his naysayers will like, awards-darling The Favourite