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Air America (1991,USA)


Director: Roger Spottiswoode    Starring: Mel Gibson, Robert Downey Junior, Nancy Travis

Air America was a real life company, run by the CIA, that provided covert logistical support to US forces and their allies during the Vietnam war. Operating out of a bunch of places in South East Asia their motto was “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, Professionally”, a slogan they lived up to as they transported cargo of all types from VIPs to commandos, rice to munitions, all over the theatre of conflict in Vietnam. Over and above their involvement in covert operations, accusations of drug smuggling on behalf of the Laotian military have been levelled at the organisation. All in all the company represents an interesting chapter in the history of American involvement in the Vietnam war, so it was probably inevitable that somebody would make a film about it.

Maybe it was a mistake to put the story of this complex and interesting organisation in the hands of the director of Turner and Hooch, possibly stranger too that it would take the form of a buddy movie starring Mel Gibson (fresh from the first couple of Lethal Weapon movies) and a pre-disgrace Robert Downey Jr. In the grand pantheon of cinema dealing with the Vietnam war, Air America feels a little out of place, taking the conflict less seriously than even Good Morning Vietnam but who said all Vietnam films had to be all misery and introspection?

Downey Jr. plays Billy Covington, a maverick LA traffic reporter who loses his pilot’s licence after a particularly unacceptable stunt on the job. Offered a second chance by a mysterious representative of Air America he signs up to do cargo running for them in Laos where America absolutely, positively is not engaging in activities in support of the Vietnam war. At least that’s the official line. He hooks up with veteran Air America flyer Gene Ryack (Gibson) and the pair get into a series of scrapes in the less than peaceful Laotian jungle. In the meantime they discover that their bosses are collaborating with Laotian General Lu Soong (Burt Kwouk) in the manufacture and distribution of large quantities of drugs, forcing them to make a choice between a relatively easy life of madcap flying antics and doing the right thing.

Whatever your feelings about the light hearted nature of this film, the buddy movie format works well thanks to the chemistry between a more or less rehashed Martin Riggs-esque Gibson and a fresh faced Downey Jr giving it their all to forge some repartee between the two lead characters. While some of the dialogue and dynamics of their relationship feel a little bit hackneyed twenty years down the line, they come across convincingly enough and their rapidly cemented friendship feels real. Their fellow pilots put in a good showing too, with some genuinely emotional scenes when they succumb to the risks of their chosen profession.

Much of the fun comes from Richard Rush and John Eskrow’s script which brings just enough levity to the film to raise a few chuckles but I am conflicted about whether or not a ‘Nam film should be fun. Yeah ok, something like Full Metal Jacket is peppered with jokes and amusing moments but Air America lacks the gravitas to counterbalance this humour in any meaningful way. It seems like a missed opportunity and almost a disrespect to glance so fleetingly at the morality of what they are doing, especially the drug smuggling sub plot and this superficiality does seriously impede any attempt to make this into anything other than an average buddy action flick.

An atmospheric soundtrack sets the scene with intermittent hits of the Vietnam era (is there a Vietnam film that doesn’t feature Creedence Clearwater Revival?) but the original score by Charles Gross leaves a lot to be desired, it’s cheesy late eighties/early nineties vibe completely inappropraite for the subject matter. This is indicative of a somewhat greater shortfall of the film. Barring the constant references to Vietnam and the music, it seems a little anachronistic, the vibe being very much that of the eighties rather than the early seventies as is being portrayed. It’s a bit of a disappointment as it doesn’t seem like a terribly difficult thing to achieve, but then they probably blew a lot of the budget on the planes and choppers required.

Echoing the likes of Bat 21 and Lethal Weapon it’s a half decent film that’s worth a watch particularly if, like me, you happen to catch it on late night tv. It won’t challenge you politically or ethically with respect to the conflict it portrays but it will generate a chuckle or two and is certainly a pleasant diversion.

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