Someday a very good film could be made about the clandestine CIA operation to airlift guns and supplies to local troops fighting North Vietnamese soldiers in Laos during the Vietnam War. This film could take a serious approach, raising concerns about the legality and morality of the way the operation was handled. On the other end of the spectrum, a wickedly funny satire that plays up the lunacy of the pilots and CIA officials involved ala Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, could just as effectively point out the problems inherent with working with unreliable warlords. What that good movie will not be is what Air America became: a film that wants to be a Looney Tunes cartoon featuring rebellious pilot hijinks that also scolds the U.S. government in a self-righteous manner for its ethical shortcomings in a questionable war. With one foot in each style of filmmaking, director Roger Spottiswoode never commits to either tone and the film fails to make an impact as either one.

Billy Covington (Robert Downey Jr.) is a helicopter pilot who works as the traffic reporter for a Los Angeles radio station. When he loses his pilot’s license and his job for getting into an on-air fight with a truck driver for not allowing an ambulance to reach the scene of an accident, the CIA recruits him to fly for Air America, a secret government organization operating in Laos. Having no other immediate options, he takes the offer and is dropped head first into a world of jittery pilots nearly driven insane by the dangers of their job. Among these pilots is Gene Ryack (Mel Gibson), who seems just as borderline insane as the rest of the pilots, but may just be using that perception as a cover for his side business of running guns to the highest bidder. When Billy discovers that not only is the Air America operation illegal, the CIA is also helping a local warlord (Burt Kwouk) to run heroin deliveries in exchange for his military help, he has a crisis of conscience that forces him to make a decision that can cost him more than his job.

The early scenes of the film are easily the best. Spottiswoode uses Billy to introduce the audience to a never-ending stream of off-kilter characters. These scenes are often very funny as Gibson and a host of perfectly cast character actors (Art La Fleur, Tim Thomerson, Marshall Bell) display the traits of adrenaline junkies who may have overdosed. They drink too much, take unnecessary risks in the service of getting their fix, and fight like stray dogs when seemingly benign gestures and statements are taken the wrong way. These scenes have just the right amount of suspense to them, as well. While their actions are mostly played for laughs, the very real danger is made apparent to Billy when he realizes that he will sometimes have to place his life in the hands of these lunatics.

Unfortunately, a plot kicks in that includes the efforts to keep a visiting senator (Lane Smith) from discovering the heroin smuggling and a humanitarian worker (Nancy Travis) fighting to save refugees from the encroaching war and the drug trade. It’s no surprise that the film loses its edge as the second and third acts strip away the early efforts to create a loopy satire. Characters suddenly lose their idiosyncratic qualities, develop consciences, and swoop in to save the day. This wouldn’t be so objectionable except for the fact that the script never provides concrete reasons for them to make these changes. The plot demands it, so they must change.

The film ends with an attempt to pick back up on the dark humor of the first act by linking characters from the Air America operation to the Iran-Contra scandal and the U.S. involvement with Manuel Noriega. But this just feels like desperate attempts to make the film more relevant when it was released. In fact, the whole second half of the film feels desperate as the cast struggles to inject the righteous anger that Spottiswoode seems to demand.

Sometimes funny, disjointed, and confused about the message it wants to make, Air America fails to make much of an impact. It takes an interesting subject and wrings all the life and flavor out of it in order to become a bland, Hollywood-ready product.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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