This Vietnamera mind-number stars Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. as flyboys who trade quips and share close-ups as the bullets fly and the laughs come tumbling down. Downey is Billy Covington, a big-city chopper pilot who reported traffic conditions for a radio station before losing his license for razzing asshole drivers. Longing to do some real flying, Billy is recruited by the government for a secret and safe (he thinks) civilian airline in Laos.
Gibson’s Gene Ryack knows better; he’s been in Asia for two decades. When Billy joins him as a flier for Air America, a covert CIA operation using civilian pilots to set up a second front in Laos and Cambodia, Gene gives him a few lessons in cynicism. Air America doesn’t ??exist, or at least that’s what Nixon tells the citizens at home. But Billy soon learns that’s real gunfire being aimed at his plane and that’s food, money, ammo, napalm and drugs he’s transporting. Billy is shocked to discover that Gene has his own corrupt sideline — gunrunning — and that the U.S. plays footsie with local drug lords in return for aid against the Communists.
Air America is a meaty topic for a movie. And Roger Spottiswoode, who vividly recounted Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution in Under Fire, seems an ideal director to explore the ironies of its existence. The trouble is that there aren’t any ironies in the depressingly predictable screenplay by John Eskow and Richard Rush. The film remains stuck in a farcical groove, with Downey playing green kid to Gibson’s grizzled vet. Downey did the same routine to better effect as a legal clerk to a burned-out James Woods in True Believer. As for Gibson, he’s engaging but not engaged; he’s dimming a bright career with drivel like this and Bird on a Wire. Gibson and Downey crash-land, hang upside down from trees and roll on the ground with no interruption in their stream of bland patter. Meanwhile, the movie that might have been goes down in flames.
For wit, we get a senator (Lane Smith) who mistakes a foreign dignitary for a houseboy. For pathos, we’re shown a refugee-camp coordinator, played by Nancy Travis (Andy Garcia’s wife in Internal Affairs), who spouts such lines as “All we do is bomb them and feed them” while the movie treats her like a generic babe. For insight, we’re told that though our doings in Vietnam may have been wrong, our guys had spirit. Compared with the pointed military satire of M*A*S*H, this soft substitute is merely M*U*S*H.