Air America (film)

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Air America
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRoger Spottiswoode
Screenplay by
Based onAir America
by Christopher Robbins
Produced byDaniel Melnick
Mario Kassar
CinematographyRoger Deakins
Edited byJohn Bloom
Lois Freeman-Fox
Music byCharles Gross
Carolco Pictures
IndieProd Company
Distributed byTri-Star Pictures
Release date
  • August 10, 1990 (1990-08-10)
Running time
113 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$30–35 million[1]
Box office$57.7 million[citation needed]

Air America is a 1990 American action comedy film directed by Roger Spottiswoode and starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. as Air America pilots flying missions in Laos during the Vietnam War.[2] When the protagonists discover their aircraft is being used by government agents to smuggle heroin, they must avoid being framed as the drug-smugglers.

The plot of the film is adapted from Christopher Robbins' 1979 non-fiction book, chronicling the CIA-financed airline to transport weapons and supplies in Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.[3]

The publicity for the film, advertised as a lighthearted buddy movie, implied a tone that differs greatly from the actual film, 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").[4]


In late 1969, helicopter pilot Billy Covington has his pilot's license suspended for breaking safety regulations. His skills, bravery and disregard for the law are noticed by a government agent, who offers him a job in Laos working for the "strictly civilian" company Air America, which turns out to be a front for CIA operations.

In Laos, he is introduced to Air America's unorthodox pilots and aircraft, being taken under the wing of pilot Gene Ryack, who uses official flights to buy black market weapons for his private cache. His retirement plan is to make enough money to afford quitting his Air America job.

Senator Davenport arrives to investigate rumors that Air America is transporting drugs for Laotian forces. Major Lemond and Rob Diehl, CIA leaders of Air America, show the Senator around Laos to prevent him discovering that the rumors are true.

While airdropping livestock in their C-123 cargo aircraft, Billy and Jack Neely are shot down. The Pilatus PC-6 of General Soong arrives at the crash site and his soldiers load up with opium but leave Billy and Jack behind with Communist forces moving in. Gene and another pilot rescue them; Billy boards Gene's helicopter.

Billy and Gene are shot down and captured by a tribe. Gene strikes a deal to supply them with better weapons. At Gene's house, Billy is surprised to discover that Gene has a wife and children. Disillusioned with U.S. actions in Laos, Gene convinces Billy to quit his job, but Billy wants to get even with General Soong.

Davenport is losing patience and demands to know who is smuggling heroin. Learning that Jack has been killed, Lemond and Diehl claim he was the ring leader behind the drug trafficking. Billy blows up the heroin factory, but guards see him running away. Davenport demands more concrete evidence.

Gene finds a buyer for his arsenal, allowing him to quit Air America and take his family out of Laos. Billy accepts one more flight, taking flour to a refugee camp when he is instructed to divert for "routine inspection." Suspecting a setup, Billy inspects the cargo and finds heroin. He crash-lands on the same airstrip where he crashed earlier and uses the wreckage of the previous crash to hide the aircraft.

Davenport recognizes the nature of the setup and threatens to reveal Lemond and Diehl's operation to Washington.

Gene, on his way to make his final weapons delivery, rescues Billy. They respond to a distress call from a refugee camp caught in crossfire. The official in charge of the camp refuses to leave without the refugees. Gene reluctantly dumps the weapons to make room for the refugees and blows up their cache to cover the escape.

In the air, Gene and Billy hatch a scheme to sell the aircraft to recoup Gene's money.




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,[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]


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 fifteen cameras at a time. Principal photography began on October 3, 1989, and continued until February 10, 1990.[6] 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.[8]


Air America (soundtrack)
Soundtrack album by
Various artists
LabelMCA Records
ProducerBecky Mancuso, Tim Sexton, Magstripe Entertainment
Professional ratings
Review scores
AllMusic [9]


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

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 13% based on 16 reviews, with an average rating of 3.4/10.[10] Metacritic reports a weighted average score of 33 out of 100, based on 13 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".[11] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B" on an A+ to F scale.[12]

Upon its release, Air America was embroiled in controversy over its treatment of the "secret CIA airline service."[4] After the Persian Gulf War began on January 15, 1991, the film was withdrawn from distribution in over 100 cinemas throughout Germany.[6] 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."[13] 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."[14]

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 Hmong pilot Lee Lue."[15] Christopher Robbins said the movie distorted his book's presentation of the Air America story, and historian William Leary noted "The exploits of CAT/Air America form a unique chapter in the history of air transport, one that deserves better than a misleading, mediocre movie."[16]

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."[17]

Alexander Cockburn wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Air America received abuse for "dar[ing] to say the unsayable, and commits the added offense of joking about it ... It injects into mass culture truth on a matter that official America has been lying about for three decades, namely the confluence between U.S. covert operations and criminality, whether in Laos, Afghanistan or Central America".[18]

Box office[edit]

Air America debuted at number three behind Flatliners and Young Guns II.[19] The film ended up grossing $31,053,601 in the US and $3,243,404 in other countries for a worldwide total of $36,297,005.[citation needed]


  1. ^ "THE MOVIES : The fine art of MAKING THE DEAL". Los Angeles Times. 27 May 1990.
  2. ^ Curry 2004, p. 158.
  3. ^ Hamilton-Merritt 1999, p. 8.
  4. ^ a b Kevin Gilvear (October 10, 2004). "Air America". DVD Video Review. Retrieved January 4, 2015.
  5. ^ Klady, Leonard. |"Ghostly Movie." Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1987. Retrieved: January 4, 2015.
  6. ^ a b c "Miscellaneous notes: Air America (1990)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: January 4, 2015.
  7. ^ Clarkson 2004, p. 225.
  8. ^ Carrick 1998, p. 145.
  9. ^ Air America at AllMusic
  10. ^ "Air America (1990)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved November 11, 2022.
  11. ^ "Air America Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved November 30, 2020.
  12. ^ "Find CinemaScore" (Type "Air America" in the search box). CinemaScore. Retrieved November 30, 2020.
  13. ^ James, Caryn. "Air America (1990); Review: Film, Gibson as C.I.A. pilot." The New York Times, August 10, 1990.
  14. ^ Evans 2000, p. 8.
  15. ^ "New Vietnam film overlooks revered Hmong pilot Lue." St. Paul Pioneer Press, August 10, 1990, p. 1A. Retrieved: January 5, 2015.
  16. ^ Leary, William M. (2014). "Supporting the "Secret War": CIA Air Operations in Laos 1955-1974". Archived from the original on April 12, 2017. Retrieved April 11, 2017.
  17. ^ Webb, Andy. "Downey's War on Drugs" The Movie Scene. Retrieved: January 5, 2015.
  18. ^ Cockburn, Andrew (20 September 1990). "Fury Won't Make Truth Go Away : "Air America" revives old but well-documented charges of CIA complicity in drug-running". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 29 January 2022.
  19. ^ Broeske, Pat H. "The Two Jakes fails to do land-office business." Los Angeles Times, August 13, 1990. Retrieved: November 23, 2010.


  • 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.
  • Robbins, Christopher. Air America. Cassell Military 2012. ISBN 978-1908059017.

External links[edit]