AIR AMERICA, a Mel Gibson vehicle from 1990, co-starring Robert Downey Jr., was scripted by John Escow (The Mask Of Zorro) and Richard Rush (The Stunt Man), off the 1978 non-fiction book by Christopher Robbins, in turn based on the activities of the controversial clandestine airline used by the C.I.A. during the Vietnam War. An action-comedy about stuff that was definitely actionful but assuredly not all that funny; as directed by Roger Spottiswoode, it succeeds in terms of action, with some impressive stunt flying sequences, but is scanty when it comes to ginning up many laughs.
Cheeky L.A. traffic helicopter pilot ‘Billy Covington’ (Downey, 24) breaks too many regulations and loses his license. His aerobatic skills are noticed by a government official who lures him to fly for a “civilian” company working in Laos (the televised part of the war meanwhile raging next door in Vietnam), ostensibly to deliver humanitarian supplies and thwart the regional Communists. Billy meets the rogue hard-drinking wild bunch who fly the missions, including cynical, laid back ‘Gene Ryack’ (Gibson, 34), who has a Laotian wife and a retirement side gig going where he stealth airdrops weapons to various factions. Other pilots, knowingly or in-the-dark, run drugs for corrupt warlords, who in turn support the US war effort. Congressional over-site is snow-jobbed. So much for a fair fight. Go, team! Officially, President Nixon says everything is hunky dory. ‘Freedom’ is for those who can afford it. Good thing secret government-blessed criminal shenanigans like this never happened again…
Spottiswoode had directed Under Fire, which dealt with shady US involvement in Nicaragua, but this one doesn’t hit with anything like the smarts or emotional impact of that excellent 1983 drama. Setting and tone are problem here; the illegal, illicit and devastating side-show that tortured Laos isn’t ripe for humor, no matter how absurdly corrupt and epically lunatic the whole depraved conflict was. Gibson and Downey became solid (apparently lasting) friends during the shoot, but on-screen their characters jokey camaraderie rings forced and hollow. Bob Jr. was in the midst of his abuse days, and he doesn’t put out much energy; sometimes he seems glassy, like he’s floating through it. Gibson’s okay, but not taxed by the material, which only skirts the deeper and darker side of the AA operation. Forgetting about the actor’s later personal rough edges, he’s always more convincing playing it dead-straight (The Year Of Living Dangerously, The Bounty, Braveheart), than when he “acts charming” (Bird On A Wire, Maverick, What Women Want).
Though set in 1969, several of the songs used on the soundtrack came out years later than the time frame (“Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress”, “A Horse With No Name”,”Do It Again” and “Free Ride”). Best aspect is Roger Deakin’s lush camerawork, shooting on location in Thailand around Chaing Mai, Mae Hong Son and Hae Hong. Earthquakes and a typhoon added to budget woes, and the project, packed with jungle scenery, milling extras, a slew of airplanes and a few gnarly crashes, finally cost $35,000,000 (granted 20% was Mel’s salary clout).
Reviews were unkind, and investigative author Robbins was unhappy with what had been done with his hard-won source material. Box-office came to $31,053,061 in the States and just $3,243,404 abroad. El Mel fared better critically that same year with his not-bad Hamlet, and at the tills with the limp comedy Bird On A Wire.
With Ken Jenkins (based on Maj. General Richard Secord, a major Iran-Contra asshole), David Marshall Grant, Lane Smith, Art LaFleur, Nancy Travis (wasted in a throwaway role), Burt Kwouk (based on another sweetheart, the Royal Laotian General Vang Pao), Tim Thomerson, Marshall Bell. 113 minutes.