Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
USA, 1990. Carolco Pictures, IndieProd Company Productions. Screenplay by John Eskow, Richard Rush, based on the book by Christopher Robbins. Cinematography by Roger Deakins. Produced by Daniel Melnick. Music by Charles Gross. Production Design by Allan Cameron. Costume Design by John Mollo. Film Editing by John Bloom, Lois Freeman-Fox.
Robert Downey Jr has his usual rascally fun playing an L.A. traffic helicopter pilot who loses his licence thanks to an altercation with a stubborn truck on the highway. Desperate to get back in the air, he jumps at the chance offered to him by an army recruiter who wants to send him to America’s secret war in Laos, where pilots are needed to move cargo supplies around the country. The recruiter fails to mention that the army’s supply of pilots is dwindling because they keep getting shot down by the locals, and that if he dies no one will ever know he was there in the first place. When Downey arrives in southeast Asia he meets fellow aviator Mel Gibson, who inducts him into the world of ragtag misfits that these guys comprise, men who aren’t afraid of danger and aren’t ashamed of running their own sideline business to pad their own pockets: because the U.S. government is avoiding the televised embarrassment of Vietnam by keeping their efforts in Laos off the grid, these guys aren’t officially army and won’t be in line for a pension any time soon, so many of them participate in the local heroin trade or, in Gibson’s case, stockpile weapons for future sales. The plot lightly touches on various adventures that our heroes endure with the only through-line being their generally cocky attitude towards rules and authority, but the light touch that director Roger Spottiswoode brings to their interactions, combined with some very impressive airplane footage, keeps the experience in the air until the last third. As is familiar in Hollywood films set in foreign climes, the Asian population is relegated to background filler and only in the case of Burt Kwouk’s general General Lu Soong is there a personality attributed to a local, which only makes the final sequence of rescuing a bunch of villagers (with underused Nancy Travis as the NGO operative determined to save them) that much more mawkish. The period is never convincingly recreated, it looks like 1989 the entire time, but there’s a brightness to it that makes it very pleasant to sit through even when its stakes are least convincing.