Air America (film)

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Air America
Air America (film).jpg
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
Produced by Mario Kassar
Andrew G. Vajna
Written by Christopher Robbins
John Eskow
Richard Rush
Based on Air America (nonfiction work) 
by Christopher Robbins
Starring Mel Gibson
Robert Downey Jr.
Nancy Travis
David Marshall Grant
Michael Dudikoff
Lane Smith
Cinematography Roger Deakins
Edited by John Bloom
Lois Freeman-Fox
Production
company
Distributed by TriStar Pictures
Release dates
  • August 10, 1990 (1990-08-10)
Running time
112 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $35,000,000
Box office $31,053,601 (USA)

Air America is a 1990 American action comedy film directed by Roger Spottiswoode, starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. as Air America pilots, during the Vietnam War, flying missions in Laos.[1] When the protagonists discover their aircraft are being used by other government agents to smuggle heroin, they must avoid being framed as the drug-smugglers.

The plot of Air America is adapted from Christopher Robbins' 1979 non-fiction book, chronicling the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency financed airline during the Vietnam War to transport weapons and supplies in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in the 1960s, subsequent to the North Vietnamese invasion of Laos.[2][Note 1]

The publicity for the film, advertised as a light-hearted buddy movie, implied a tone that differs greatly with the actual film's tone, which includes such serious themes as an anti-war message, focus on the opium trade, and a negative portrayal of Royal Laotian General Vang Pao (played by actor Burt Kwouk as "General Lu Soong").[3]

Plot[edit]

In late 1969, Billy Covington (Robert Downey Jr.) works as a helicopter traffic pilot for a Los Angeles radio station, but after breaking several safety regulations on the job, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration suspends his pilot's license. His piloting skills, bravery and disregard for the law are noticed by a mysterious government agent, who tells Billy that he can get his license back if he accepts a job in Laos, working for a "strictly civilian" company called Air America. The stranger indicates the air mission in Laos is "Top Secret" and the fact that American soldiers are stationed in Laos is a cover-up.

Unemployed and unable to find work, Billy takes the job. In Laos, he is introduced to Air America's unorthodox pilots and aircraft, being taken under the wing of Gene Ryack (Mel Gibson), a cynical and eccentric pilot and an arms dealer who uses official flights to buy black market weapons for his private cache. His dream, which he refers to as his "retirement plan", is to make a sale big enough so that he can afford to quit his job at Air America.

The next day, Senator Davenport (Lane Smith) arrives in Laos on a "fact finding mission" to determine if Washington, D.C. rumors are true about Air America's drug smuggling business. Major Lemond (Ken Jenkins) and Rob Diehl (David Marshall Grant), CIA leaders of Air America, have a cover-up in place. Senator Davenport is shown around refugee camps, shrines, temples, and major cities in a careful deception to keep him out of the loop. At the same time, while airdropping livestock into rural villages in their C-123 cargo aircraft, Billy and Jack Neely (Art LaFleur) are shot down. The Air America rescue effort turns out to be nothing but a cover for the transport of opium. When the Pilatus PC-6 of General Soong (Burt Kwouk) arrives at the crash site, his soldiers load bags of opium onboard, but leave Billy and Jack behind with Communist forces moving in. Gene and another pilot arrive and while he boards Gene's helicopter, Billy's crew escapes in the other aircraft.

When Billy and Gene's helicopter takes fire and crashes, they are captured by a rural tribe. Gene notices that the tribe is using obsolete and unreliable guns, striking a deal to trade for better weapons. Allowed to go free, Billy and Gene retreat to Gene's house, where Billy is surprised to discover that Gene has a wife and children. Already disillusioned with US actions in Laos, Gene convinces Billy to quit his job with Air America, but Billy wants to get even with General Soong for betraying him when he crashed.

Meanwhile, Senator Davenport upset with Air America officials, demands to know who is smuggling heroin. Soon after their return, the pilots learn during his search for Billy and Gene, Jack was killed and is now being blamed as the ring leader behind the drug trafficking. Enraged, Billy purchases grenades on the black market and uses them to blow up the heroin factory but guards see him running away, and General Soong and Major Lemond use him as their fall guy.

The next day, Gene finds a buyer for his arsenal, allowing him to leave gunrunning, quit Air America, and take his family out of the country. Meanwhile, Billy accepts one more flight before he actually quits. With co-pilot Babo (Tim Thomerson) assigned to transport flour to a refugee camp but they are instructed to land at an airstrip for "routine inspection". Billy immediately suspects a set-up, as a search reveals several kilos of heroin hidden in flour sacks. With his fuel gauge tampered with, Babo and Billy crash-land on the same airstrip where Billy crashed a few days earlier, and use the wreckage of the previous crash to hide the smaller aircraft.

Gene, on his way to make his final, largest weapons delivery, flies in to rescue Babo and Billy. Billy convinces him to respond to a distress call from the refugee camp, caught in the crossfire between General Soong's men and a band of local rebels. Gene tries to rescue the United States Agency for International Development official (Nancy Travis) in charge of the camp, however, she refuses to leave without the refugees. After some initial resistance, Gene dumps the weapons to make room for the refugees, blowing up the weapons cache to cover their escape.

In the air, Billy comes up with a scheme to sell the aircraft to give back Gene his stake. Despite Diehl and Lemond's efforts to implicate Billy, the Senator, threatens to reveal their operation to Washington.

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

Development[edit]

Director Richard Rush tried to develop the film in 1985, as the first comedy about Vietnam. Carolco Pictures bought the project as Rush wrote a script and found locations. Sean Connery was attached to play the older pilot, Gene Ryack, and the younger flier Billy Covington was at different times to be played by Bill Murray,[4] James Belushi and Kevin Costner. The project was sold to producer Daniel Melnick after Connery and Costner became too expensive. Melnick hired screenwriter John Eskow to write a new script; and first hired director Bob Rafelson to work with Rush, but eventually hiring director Roger Spottiswoode.[5] Mel Gibson was cast for a reported $7 million, for the role of Ryack, and Robert Downey, Jr. took on the role of Covington. Nancy Travis was cast as Corinne Landroaux, replacing Ally Sheedy), and Michael Dudikoff was cast as General Lee.[6]

Filming[edit]

The budget of Air America increased to $35 million as the production involved a 500-member crew shooting in 49 different locations between Thailand, London, and Los Angeles; operating between eight and 15 cameras at a time. Principal photography began on October 3, 1989 and continued until February 10, 1990.[5] The production was plagued by two earthquakes and a typhoon. The producers rented 26 aircraft from the Thai military, although some of the stunt flyers refused to perform some of the stunts, with 60-year-old veterans being drafted for the more demanding turns. PepsiCo wanted the filmmakers to use a fictional soda rather than show opium being refined at their abandoned factory. Therefore, the producers added a line about wondering if Pepsi knew what was going on. After previewing the film, six months after production, Gibson and other principals were called back to film a new ending.[7]

Soundtrack[edit]

Air America (soundtrack)
Soundtrack album by Various artists
Released 1990
Recorded 1990
Genre Rock music
Length 33:45
Label MCA Records
Producer Becky Mancuso, Tim Sexton, Magstripe Entertainment
Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
AllMusic 2/5 stars [8]
No. Title Writer(s) Performed by Length
1. "Love Me Two Times"   John Densmore, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison Aerosmith 3:22
2. "Right Place, Wrong Time"   Mac Rebennack B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt 3:37
3. "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress"   Roger Cook, Allan Clarke, Roger Greenaway Charlie Sexton 4:15
4. "Do It Again"   Donald Fagen, Walter Becker Steely Dan 5:01
5. "Free Ride"   Dan Hartman Edgar Winter and Rick Derringer 3:23
6. "California Dreamin'"   John Phillips, Michelle Gilliam The Mamas & the Papas 2:38
7. "Baby, I Need Your Lovin'"   Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Edward Holland, Jr. Four Tops 2:44
8. "Get Ready"   William "Smokey" Robinson The Temptations 2:38
9. "Rescue Me"   Fontella Bass, Raynard Miner, Carl William Smith Fontella Bass 2:53
10. "Pushin' Too Hard"   Sky Saxon The Seeds 2:35

Reception[edit]

Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson attending the film's 1990 premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles.

Upon its release, Air America was embroiled in controversy over its treatment of the "secret CIA airline service."[3] After the Persian Gulf War began on January 15, 1991, the film was pulled from distribution in over 100 theaters throughout Germany.[5] Air America received mostly negative reviews from critics. The film review in The New York Times by Caryn James, saw the film as a flawed "star vehicle". "This muddled film about a secret C.I.A. project in Laos in 1969 fails on every possible level: as action film, as buddy film, as scenic travelogue and even, sad to say, as a way to flaunt Mel Gibson's appeal."[9] Film historian Alun Evans in Brassey's Guide to War Films, in his commentary, was brief but pointed in characterizing Air America as a "... tawdry, unfunny war comedy."[10]

Some criticism was levelled at the inaccuracies prevalent in the production. The review of Air America in the St. Paul Pioneer Press noted: "... the comedy adventure doesn't feature any real heroes of that war, men like the legendary Hmong pilot Lee Lue."[11]

More recent revelations about the role of the CIA in Indochina have made Air America more relevant although few critics have been willing to mollify their original judgment. As of January 4, 2015, the film currently has a 13% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 15 reviews, with an average score of 3.4/10. British film critic Andy Webb opined that Air America worked as an aviation film. "... on a small positive some of the flying stunts, and there are plenty of them, are pretty spectacular. In a movie which almost floats these moments of aeronautic acrobats (they) give an injection of adrenalin although by no means enough to save it."[12]

Box office[edit]

Air America debuted at number three behind Flatliners and Young Guns II.[13] The film ultimately was a box office bomb, only grossing $31 million against a $35 million budget.[14]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Robbins followed up his earlier work with The Ravens, Pilots of the Secret War in Laos (1989).[15]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ Curry 2004, p. 158.
  2. ^ Hamilton-Merritt 1999, p. 8.
  3. ^ a b Gilvear, Kevin. "Air America." DVD Video Review, October 10, 2004. Retrieved: January 4, 2015.
  4. ^ Klady, Leonard. |"Ghostly Movie." Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1987. Retrieved: January 4, 2015.
  5. ^ a b c "Miscellaneous notes: Air America (1990)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: January 4, 2015.
  6. ^ Clarkson 2004, p. 225.
  7. ^ Carrick 1998, p. 145.
  8. ^ Air America (film) at AllMusic
  9. ^ James, Caryn. "Air America (1990); Review: Film, Gibson as C.I.A. pilot." The New York Times, August 10, 1990.
  10. ^ Evans 2000, p. 8.
  11. ^ "New Vietnam film overlooks revered Hmong pilot Lue." St. Paul Pioneer Press, August 10, 1990, p. 1A. Retrieved: January 5, 2015.
  12. ^ Webb, Andy. "Downey's War on Drugs" The Movie Scene. Retrieved: January 5, 2015.
  13. ^ Broeske, Pat H. "The Two Jakes fails to do land-office business." Los Angeles Times, August 13, 1990. Retrieved: November 23, 2010.
  14. ^ Broeske, Pat H."Flatliners leads lively box office; Movies: Young audience helps medical drama and Gibson's 'Air America' shoot down Nicholson's 'Two Jakes'." Los Angeles Times, August 14, 1990. Retrieved: November 23, 2010.
  15. ^ "The Ravens by Christopher Robbins." DCO Thai - Books and More. Retrieved: January 4, 2015.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Carrrick, Peter. Mel Gibson. London: Robert Hale, 1998. ISBN 978-0-70906-088-8.
  • Clarkson, Wensley. Mel Gibson: Man on a Mission. London: John Blake, 2004. ISBN 978-1-85782-577-0.
  • Curry, Robert. Whispering Death, "Tuag Nco Ntsoov": Our Journey with the Hmong in the Secret War for Laos. Bloomington, Indiana: IUniverse Inc., 2004. ISBN 978-0-59576-639-0.
  • Evans, Alun. Brassey's Guide to War Films. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2000. ISBN 1-57488-263-5.
  • Hamilton-Merritt, Jane. Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992 . Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0-25320-756-2.

External links[edit]