Air America Review

When Air America was released theatrically in 1990 it raised controversy over its handling of the secret CIA airline service, that during the war across Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam in the 60's supplied ammunitions and food for local territories.

During that time the United States had formed strong relations with Southeast Asia that stemmed from several political factors, and soon the CIA's newly merged airline "Air America" became embroiled in a secret war in Laos. The pilots for "Air America" were volunteers and veterans from previous wars; recruited to do the jobs that no one else would dare do - like their missions they supposedly never existed.

Based upon Christopher Robbin's book of the same name, Air America tells the story of these brave men who flew hundreds of flights every day and faced death at any time. Their motto "Anything, Anytime, Anywhere" served as a reminder that they could do anything simply because they were never there in the first place.

The story follows LA traffic reporter, Billy Covington (Robert Downey Jr.) who has recently lost his pilot's licence due to a traffic incident on the freeway. He is soon visited by a CIA representative who offers him a job flying in Laos for a secret airline known as "Air America". Knowing he'll get his licence back and thus be able to do what he loves the most Billy agrees to sign up. Upon arrival in Laos he soon befriends ace pilot, Gene Ryack (Mel Gibson) and learns that amongst their daily deliveries consisting of food supplies they also run opium errands for General Soong (Burt Kwok), while Gene secretly operates his own gun running business to fund his retirement.

Having read Christopher Robbin's book several years ago I can say that the film follows many of the facts very well, though it is obvious that Mel Gibson's character is made up of traits belonging to several existing pilots during the Laos war. It is Gibson's character and others that provide the humour throughout this feature as they face a serious war that sees their humorous antics and personalities referred to as being insane - but the pilots of the time were an assortment of eccentric or just plain weird fellows who without a blink of the eye would thrust themselves into enemy fire.

The real argument that could occur from seeing this film is just how successful it is as being a satirical piece of work. While it gives us a decent idea of what happened at the time it does little to actually go deeper into the history of these events and covers its tail with a story about local drug running. This in turn brings many conflictions with that of Ryack's own operation, causing a couple of contradictory moments that sees corruption from both sides and fails to deliver any meaningful message other than war is corruption itself, but the justifications are not fully realised or explained well enough, although it is safe to assume that Ryack is disillusioned as to how much good he is actually doing. Air America should have hit harder in achieving its ultimate goal, it missed a great opportunity to truly exploit the wrongfulness of what the CIA did during the 60's.

But the film I feel does deliver many fine moments. As a comedy it does work and offers some great lines, delivered in fine gusto by Gibson and particularly Downey Jr. who is in his element here, although the comedy is geared toward playful moments and less of the darker variety, for which the film may have succeeded better had it gone with this approach. The supporting cast are equally fun and make up a nice assortment of quirky characters who we know did exist, but my major criticism is with Nancy Travis' character that provides little to the story and serves only as Gibson's "redemption" as it were.

Director, Roger Spottiswoode gives the film a sumptuous look that captures Vietnam Laos in both beautiful realism and harsher surroundings, in addition offering some superb aerial photography and stunts that include an amazing crash landing sequence that I have never seen bettered since on film. The choices he has made throughout are debatable as being good or bad, as not only do we have the satirical storyline but also some dubious editing and continuity slips, that includes a soundtrack featuring several songs (although a brilliant collection) that never existed during the year in which the film is set.


Air America

finally gets its special edition treatment through this region 1 release.
Note: The copy I am reviewing is the Canadian release, which is identical to the US release distributed by Lion's Gate.


Presented in Anamorphic 2:35.1 the film looks better than ever. Having owned VHS and Laserdisc versions of the film I can say that it's great to see it presented here with such care. Edge Enhancement has been applied to the transfer and there is a little grain throughout but otherwise things are very acceptable. The colours are well handled, from the lush green landscapes to the darker neon-lit streets.


The film's primary soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. Also included is a French 2.0 track and an audio commentary - which I shall discuss in due course. For the 5.1 listening the audio provides a highly entertaining track with excellent surrounds that compliment some of the larger set pieces, particularly the stunning crash mentioned earlier.


Audio Commentary by writer/co-producer John Eskow
Mr. Eskow gives a decent commentary on the making of the film, offering some very honest opinions about certain aspects but failing to acknowledge the stumbling blocks that the film faces. He shows a lot of enthusiasm for the actors involved and pays his respects to the men who provided the inspiration for his story.

Flight Log
Running for little under 4-minutes this is nothing more than a small EPK that features on set interviews and various set footage.

Pre-Flight: The Storyboards of Air America
5-minutes of original storyboard sequences that show visual comparisons between the original concept drawings and the finalised product.

Return Flight: Revisiting Air America
This 22-minute featurette includes all new interviews with cast and crew members, including Roger Spottiswoode, John Eskow, Marshall Bell, Tim Thomerson, Art LaFleur and David Bowe. The feature does get interesting at times as the history of Air America is looked into, there are arguments presented but nothing conclusive. Like many of these short pieces much of the time is spent on everyone talking about how much they enjoyed filming the picture.

Theatrical Trailer and TV Spots
The original trailer is presented, along with three TV spots entitled "Exist", "Wild" and "License".


Air America

is a partial success though I wonder if it is for the wrong reasons. It does greatly entertain as an action/comedy, with plenty of reply value but it fails to provide an important part of history with more detail that leaves it less of an educational piece and more of a farcical one with an uneven tone. It has been well researched and does offer a couple of insightful dialogue pieces and respectful nods but it could have offered so much more. Overall I find it to be an underrated film that hasn't had the fairest of critiques in the past but deserves praise in other areas.

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