Universal’s answer to Blue Thunder comes piloted by the troubled Stringfellow Hawke who goes back into action in pursuit of a super-powered helicopter if the US government rescue his MIA brother…
At first, one’s memories of Airwolf tend to dwell on the similarities between it and other shows of the era, Knight Rider, Street Hawk, Blue Thunder and the like. And yet it doesn’t take long for those memories to be dispelled, with there being nothing to suggest that Michael Knight ever played mournful cello to the osprey that hunted over the lake beside his house. Sharing a house with Heather Thomas didn’t lead one to ever think that Colt Seavers had the dark nights of the soul that plague Stringfellow Hawke while the A-Team, though also veterans of the Vietnam war, look to have a high old time while Hawke mourns the loss of his brother, St John, missing in action since 1968. Were that not enough, the 12 certificate that’s been awarded to Airwolf by the BBFC certainly leaves one in no doubt that this is slightly more adult fare than its contemporaries. And there’s also a dog that likes to look up the skirts of female visitors, which certainly isn’t something that one will get in the more wholesome Knight Rider.
Debuting in 1984 – a couple of years after The A-Team but before the rot really set into American primetime action shows – Airwolf came a year after Columbia’s Blue Thunder and despite the obvious differences between the titular helicopters was readily dismissed as a theft of its rival’s ideas. Yet where Blue Thunder was a rather more obvious action drama, Airwolf, created by Donald Bellisario who would also claim Magnum PI, Quantum Leap and NCIS, is a much darker show, dwelling as much on the past as it does in the present with its hero, Stringfellow Hawke, torn over his missing brother.
As played by Jan-Michael Vincent, Hawke is a man with a single-minded devotion to finding his brother. When, in the feature-length pilot, Airwolf is stolen by its designer, Dr Moffet (David Hemmings), it is Hawke that the government turns to to bring it back to American soil but Hawke refuses all offers of money or appeals to his sense of patriotism. Disappointed by his government’s leaving behind of men as they swiftly evacuated Vietnam, which included his brother, Hawke only asks that they rescue St John. Of course, given that Airwolf lasted for four seasons, only two of which saw Donald Bellisario act as producer, the government fail to bring St John home, leaving Hawke keeping Airwolf for himself, hiding it in a cave where it will remain hidden from aerial surveys and spy satellites. But The Firm, a top secret group within the CIA, aren’t finished with Hawke and accepting that they will not be getting Airwolf back, they occasionally ask Hawke to undertake covert missions on behalf of the US government but realise that he can, and will one day, refuse.
Aided by Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine) and, the white-suited director of The Firm, Archangel/Michael Coldsmith Briggs III (Alex Cord), Stringfellow Hawke runs secret missions into Russia, Africa and South America, using the state-of-the-art weaponry to his advantage. Based on a Bell 222, Airwolf was distinctive, used heavy armour and stealth, a range of missiles and ballistics and was quite obviously the fourth character in the show, even to being called ‘Lady’ by Hawke and Santini. Given a range of voices – a quite purr through to an intense, speed-of-sound screaming – Airwolf also made much use of early computer graphics with an of-its-time prologue that made much use of wireframe models, in-window video and a font that one can’t help but associate with the early days of personal computers. With that in mind, like WarGames and Whiz Kids, Airwolf played up on the marvels of technology with schematics of its targets, of an ability to tap into and to jam telecommunications systems and to disrupt electrical power plants.
But all of these gimmicks were but a means to pull in kids to what was actually a rather dark television show. Although I didn’t remember very much of the show when watching it on its first broadcast on ITV, I could recall the love of technology, the airborne acrobatics and the various explosion but the casual sadism of David Hemmings’ Dr Moffet is quite shocking even now, including his torture of American agents. Most surprising, though, was Hawke’s vulnerability, which is often exploited by The Firm. Knowing that Hawke will do almost anything to rescue his brother and that he’s practically blind to any treachery concerning St John, The Firm and numerous rogue agents exploit his weak spot in a bid to steal Airwolf from him. They may wear white but The Firm are clearly not the good guys and although Hawke occupies a moral zone that’s only distinctive by its curious greyness, he is, and remains, the hero of the piece.
Although I do remember one odd thing about the show that was so peculiar I found myself listening out for it…Stringfellow Hawke announcing that he didn’t wear any underwear. To a thirteen-year-old in the early eighties, this seemed as perverse as a man could get. And yet, I didn’t notice at all that Hawke’s dog had a tendency to peer up the skirts of the various women who accompanied Archangel to the remote shack where Hawke lived. Most odd…
Airwolf (Pilot): On a desert testing range, Michael Coldsmith Briggs III (Alex Cord) – agent codename Archangel – demonstrates an advanced helicopter with the help of its inventor and pilot, Dr Moffet (David Hemmings). Financed by a black ops division of the CIA, better known as The Firm, the helicopter is designated Airwolf and is a supersonic, heavily armed weapon that the CIA hopes will form a major part of its overseas operations but Moffet intends that it will never see military service. Completing his testing run, Moffet turns the only operational Airwolf on the control tower before taking it to Libya, where he intends working for Gadaffi so long as the money remains good. But when Moffet leads a successful mission against an American destroyer, The Firm calls on combat pilot Stringfellow Hawke travel to Libya and to take Airwolf back. Stringfellow asks only one thing in return – that the US government find his brother, St John Hawke, who remains MIA in Vietnam…
Daddy’s Gone a Hunt’n: With Hawke keeping hold of Airwof in a secret location, Archangel asks that he investigate an American pilot who’s suspected of treason and of planning to sell a next-generation jet fighter to the Russians. But the truth is more complicated than it would first appear as Hawke finds out that the man he’s been sent to investigate is an old friend from Vietnam. As Hawke digs a little further, he learns that the wife of the suspected traitor had had a relationship with Hawke while he was stationed in Vietnam and that the Russians are holding his only son to convince him to swallow any doubts that should arise. The more Hawke learns, the more Airwolf may be a solution.
Bite of the Jackal: Dominic gets a job flying down to Acupulco but doesn’t plan on any company…least of all a young girl, Phoebe Danner (Shannen Doherty), who’s stowed away on board with him. Deciding to make the trip regardless, he gets a further and more deadly shock when a bomb explodes on board his helicopter, forcing hm to land in the desert. Investigating, Archangel learns that he has enemies within The Firm when another agent is found to be behind the bomb, one who wants Airwolf and who is prepared to use Dominic as bait to get it.
Proof Through the Night: Back in the USSR…Archangel visits Hawke to ask him to escort a double agent out of Russia and into the protection of the Americans, where his knowledge of a new and deadly toxin developed by the Russians will be of use in the Cold War stalemate. So long as it’s only one man, Hawke doesn’t see a problem but Archangel asks that to secure Vladimer Rostoff’s cooperation, his family must also be brought out of Russia. That extra weight means that Airwolf’s armaments must be removed, adding even more danger to what is already a risky mission.
One Way Express: The make-believe of the movies is tested when Archangel discovers that a Hollywood stunt is actually a cover for a real gold bullion robbery. With Dominic and Hawke already having fallen out over it – Hawke thinks it too risky for his partner to fly – Archangel asks Harke to fly it instead and to prevent the theft of the gold.
Echos From the Past: A plane flies low over Hawke’s house and drops a parcel, one containing a note and an identity bracelet that bears the name ‘Saint John’. Flying to the meeting point, Hawke meets a man who claims to know where his brother is held but on the flight back, he crashes his helicopter. Waking up in hospital, he hears that Archangel and Dominic are both dead, killed while trying to rescue St John but something doesn’t sound right and Hawke, despite hearing of St John’s release, remains suspicious.
Fight Like a Dove: Deep in South America, Nazi-hunter Harry LeBow (Peter Mamakos) is murdered by Helmut Kruger (Walter Gotell), who has been hiding in Paraquay since the end of the Second World War. LeBow’s daughter Sarah (Tovah Feldshuh) asks Hawke to investigate her father’s death and to use Airwolf to put a stop to his arms dealing. Archangel, without giving anything away, asks Hawke not to interfere.
Mad Over Miami: Shipping $2m to aid the freedom of some prisoners being held by rogue elements of the Cuban army, Dominic flies down to deliver the money but during the handover, some mercenaries fly in, steal the money and shoot Dominic’s helicopter. Landing in an emergency, his SOS is picked up by The Firm, who then alert Hawke, who sets off in Airwolf on a rescue mission. But Dominic still has to account for the missing $2m and both the Cubans and the Cuban exiles are set on taking their revenge.
And They Are Us: When Archangel sends Hawke and Santini to Africa to protect the President of Limbawe and his wife, they learn that a corrupt General is attempting a military coup and that the President’s life is in danger. But in carrying out his mission, Hawke learns that the mercenaries used by the General have some information on the whereabouts of his brother.
Mind of the Machine: Archangel asks that Hawke and Santani assist him in the development of a new flight simulator and that they use Airwolf to base real-world scenarios on. But as the project begins, Hawke learns that a rival pilot is letting his jealousy affect its outcome.
To Snare a Wolf: Although he remains keen on learning the whereabouts of Airwolf, Archangel warns Hawke that a government agency led by DG Bogard is planning on using a high-definition imaging satellite to scan for its location. Intending to move Airwolf to a new location until the heat is off, Hawke and Santini run into a stranded pilot who may be quite all she seems.
Like most of the Universal Playback releases, Airwolf comes to DVD looking fairly ordinary with a decent bitrate and picture quality but one that’s strictly functional. It does pick up well, though, when played on a big screen so this isn’t at all bad but it’s notably only for being so very ordinary. Similarly, the DD2.0 Mono is fine but thought it won’t exactly impress, it is fairly clean and both the dialogue and audio effects sound good.
There are no extras on this release.
Even more so than Knight Rider, Airwolf tailed off badly in later seasons with Donald Bellisario leaving the show after the second season when he was put under pressure to introduce a female character. With Airwolf II and Redwolf being introduced as nemeses to Airwolf in the manner that K.A.R.R. was to K.I.T.T., the show trod a familiar path after the dubious morality of this early season, leaving this first season, and the pilot in particular, as the one, if you only do intend on getting one, to buy. Though never as entertaining as The A-Team, as gimmicky as Knight Rider nor as flashy as Automan, Airwolf, at least in this first season, is a unique show with a depth that places it quite apart from those shows that might once have been considered as its peers.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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