War is a nasty business but a fertile ground for Hollywood. Vietnam has been like catnip to directors keen to highlight the horrors of war whilst incorporating crowd pleasing pyrotechnics, a groovy 60’s soundtrack and casual racism. You would think that you wouldn’t get many laughs from the meaningless deaths of thousands of naïve soldiers and innocent civilians but you underestimate the power of the silver screen. Like the philosophy behind the US government’s misguided crusade against communism which plunged Laos into civil war when the US decided to use it as a strategic base to repel infiltrating North Vietnamese forces , sometimes as a director, you’ve got to break a few grisly eggs to make a laughter omelette.
The movie itself is based on Christopher Robbins’ inside story about the secret CIA funded airline “Air America” which at its peak had the biggest air fleet in the world and ran high risk logistical missions out of Laos in support of the war against the Commies. Staffed by hell-raisers and trouble-junkies that didn’t fit into civilised society their motto “Anything, Anytime, Anywhere” soon referred to more than the shipping humanitarian cargo for the war effort.
Robert Downey Jnr plays Billy Covington one such wide-eyed loose cannon, lured to Laos on the promise of exotic adventure and steady work after losing his job back in the US. He teams up with wily vet Gene Ryack (Mel Gibson) who takes him under his wing and opens his eyes to the clusterf*ck unfurling before them. Turns out the Air America boys are complicit in a CIA backed heroin smuggling operation financing the local anti-Communist warlord’s private army. But that’s OK ‘cos they’re the good guys.
Much like the US government’s criteria regarding entering foreign conflicts, here at EHHQ we like to bend the rules. It would have been churlish to exclude a film awash with helicopters on a trifling matter such as a lack of a decent explosion or pretty much any pyrotechnics whatsoever. Wait come back!
When his landing gear fails on a routine delivery, Downey crash lands his cargo plane in a remote Japanese airstrip. Gibson is in the vicinity and hovers down in an UH-1H Huey in an attempt to extract him from the gook-infested jungle. The commotion enables “hostiles” to pin-point their location and they start to strafe the chopper with bullets. A shot penetrates the gearbox and the loss of oil pressure proves too much and the chopper goes down quicker then Paris Hilton in a hotel lift.
“I crash better then anyone I know” Gibson reassures us
The bullet riddled chopper smashes through the tree line losing tail and rotors and comes to rest horizontally in the bows of a tree. There is corny exchange of action comedy banter between the two about who is going to jump down first ending with both of them jumping a good 100ft down to the ground without so much as a twisted ankle. Predictably as soon as they are clear of the landing zone the rest of the wreckage crashes down from the tree onto the jungle floor.
Director Roger Spottiswoode graces us with beautifully shot film (director of photography Roger Deakins could make a ninety minute montage of turds look like 2001:A Space Odyssey) chock full of airplanes and countless helicopters and even has a number of expensive looking explosions scattered at important points in the film. Despite this elaborate and drawn out set piece he drops the ball big time when it comes to bringing these two action staples together. There were high level talks within the team as to whether this film could even be included in these hallowed pages due to its lack of bona fide chopper fireball. I think there is enough smoke, sparks and damage to the chopper to justify it. But only just.
Exploding helicopter innovation
I haven’t seen any type of motorised transport wedged in a tree since the Jurassic Park jeep incident. I pretty sure this is a helicopter first.
Do passengers survive?
Yes, going by the principle that leading men rarely if ever come a cropper in a chopper, both Gibson and Downey jump down and away from the falling wreckage and live to wisecrack another day.
For ostensibly a light hearted action comedy there is a surprising amount of social and political commentary hidden in the typical high octane japery. Yes, its fairly superficial stuff (more M*A*S*H then All The President’s Men) but kudos to scriptwriter John Eskow for including as much pinko-loving anti war propaganda as the studios would allow.
There are some nice turns by go-to oriental stalwart Bert Kwouk as the crooked Laotian warlord General Lu Soong and a pre Scrubs Ken Jenkins is entertaining as hard ass Major Donald Lemond who tries to make a patsy out of Downey.
The film has been universally panned by all and sundry but I quite enjoyed it.
Spottiswoode had the perfect opportunity to lay a big explosion on us when the cockpit hits the ground but he bottles it. Perhaps he had blown the budget on coke and hookers for Downey’s trailer. Inexcusable.
Also nothing much has the appearance of 1969. It looks far too contemporary. What has the man got against long hair and sideburns?
“I’ll kick your whirlybird ass you little airborne piece of sh*t”
Sean Connery and Kevin Costner were originally pencilled in for the roles of Gibson and Downey but proved too expensive. Costner would struggle to get a paper round these days. In fact his biggest audience in the last 10 years was at Whitney Houston's funeral.