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Cinophile: Air America

3 min read

Movies have a strong tradition with the crazy side of the military world, be it the deadpan Jarhead, the weird Men Who Stare At Goats, the zany Good Morning Vietnam or the greatest of them all, MASH. In the early nineties two actors teamed up for another such journey, this time the antics of a covert air force operated by the CIA in the 1950s. Good thing both actors are known for their “I’m not gonna do what you tell me to” characters…

Sean Connery was once considered for the role Mel Gibson got, but proved too expensive. Gibson was paid an alleged $7 million. Robert Downey Jr. wanted the role for a chance to work with Gibson. Initially his spot was offered to the likes of Tom Cruise and Kevin Costner, but Cruise declined and Costner was also too expensive.

Air America was a CIA airforce that carted supplies around South Asia during the Vietnam war. Officially it never existed and later would be accused of smuggling heroin for a local general-cum-drug-kingpin. The main source of these allegations – though not nearly the only one – was a book written by one of the civilian pilots that flew for Air America. Adapted to film, it starred Mel Gibson, whose star was still rising and shining brightly, and Robert Downey Jr., yet to be recognised with an Oscar nom for Chaplin. The movie would bomb, falling a sliver short of its production budget, and yet today it is a true ‘gonzo war’ classic.

The stunt where Robert Downey Jr. hangs from a helicopter with a rope was real – and by him. The actor agreed to do it after director Roger Spottiswoode decided against rear projection, feeling it wouldn’t look right.

Downey is a maverick, bored with his day job as a Los Angeles radio traffic helicopter pilot. After a somewhat minor incident with a truck, he is offered a job: fly planes for Uncle Sam in Laos. Arriving there, our young hero discovers that his own zaniness is nothing compared to the motley crew of bush pilots and other gravity dodgers, especially Gibson channeling Riggs from Lethal Weapon. The plot mainly hovers around their friendship, while orbiting the larger dirty war/drug smuggling themes, all held together with black comedy glue.

Air America employed an army of people to plan and coordinate the stunts and crashes. Some of the stunts were so extreme that several of the pilots declines doing them. Apparently the most spectacular stunts, including an intense short runway landing with a bush plane, were done by senior pilots aged over 60. The film mentions – and demonstrates – the fabled “Golden BB”, a term for when light weapons fire brings down an aircraft.

Air America failed to get any attention from the audiences of 1990, a year already top-heavy with blockbuster classics. But nearly 25 years later it has aged remarkably well – this film didn’t fail because it was poorly made. Maybe people just weren’t in the mood for crazy pilots, excellent stunts and more than one spectacular crash. But today it’s still one hell of a ride, something you can’t say for many of that year’s blockbusters…



Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: January 20, 2014

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