Review for Air America
This is a film that grows on me the more I watch it, and whereas I simply labelled it as another entertaining action comedy when I first saw it on video, and then when I hastened to buy the DVD, I’ve since found more to appreciate with each new viewing. I also noted the last time I watched the film on DVD, up-scaled to my then brand new flat panel display, that the old Momentum disc didn’t look all that great on the bigger screen. It went straight on my still relatively sparse double-dip list. But the odd thing is that no UK Blu-ray of Air America existed at the time, and it certainly hasn’t been released here in the subsequent three years. I finally bit the bullet and imported the Lionsgate release from the US, helpfully an All Region disc, and released in partnership with Europe’s Studiocanal, which makes its UK absence even odder. Apparently there is a barebones release in Spain though.
It’s 1969 and the United States is involved in a nasty little brush war in South East Asia. As evil communists fight to take control of Vietnam, the US will stop at nothing to prevent the world being dominated by the colour red. The neighbouring country of Laos becomes embroiled in a hidden war as communist insurgents try to gain a further foothold in South East Asia, while the CIA attempt to keep the country nice and capitalist. Air America is a CIA funded outfit that flies supplies and weapons to the local forces. The local forces grow opium and sell the narcotic to fund their little war, all under the auspices of the CIA. But as President Nixon says, there are no American forces in Laos.
When ace pilot, Billy Covington gets a little overzealous while flying his helicopter during a traffic report, he finds himself sacked and grounded. He doesn’t have to worry too long about his next pay-check though, as a mysterious figure soon turns up to recruit him into a private airline expanding the frontiers in Laos. In Laos though, he sees that the story is a little more complex, when he is introduced to a brotherhood of pilots who make him look a little tame. Gene Ryack immediately befriends him, a pilot turned native who shows him the ropes, and introduces him to the hypocrisy and insidious nature of the CIA. When Senator Davenport turns up to see what the CIA is up to, it rapidly becomes apparent that food isn’t the only cargo that Air America carries. Someone is going to take the fall and it sure isn’t going to be the CIA. Meanwhile Gene has got his own sideline running guns and building up his retirement fund. He’s ready for the biggest deal of his career, as long as that pesky conscience of his doesn’t get in the way.
Air America gets a 2.35:1 widescreen transfer at 1080p resolution. The film has certainly been cleaned for the HD release in comparison to the old DVD. The print is stable and free of damage and dirt. Other than that, it looks like they put the film onto disc as is. There’s a nice level of film grain throughout, detail levels are strong, the richness of the film’s colour palette comes across well, and you can partake of all of the costumes, production design, sets and locations in all their high resolution glory. I also had no complaints about blooming or black crush, and contrast levels were very agreeable. On top of all that, the flying sequences look even more fantastic now.
Lionsgate give Air America a whopping great DTS-HD MA 7.1 Surround English track, 2 speakers beyond my home cinema’s capabilities. Not that it matters as what you get here is an up-mix of the film’s original stereo track. The dialogue is clear and pretty front focussed, but for the film’s action sequences, the disc does a pretty impressive job of throwing effects around the soundstage, and immersing you in the ambience. It’s an effective reworking of the audio that stays true to the original intent of the film. Of course there is that fantastic period music soundtrack to appreciate, an eclectic and effective selection of tunes. The disc also throws up player generated subtitles during the foreign language sequences in a font that feels as if it’s burnt into the print. The only other language options on this disc are DD 2.0 French, with English and Spanish subtitles.
The disc autoplays a trailer for more of the Lionsgate Blu-ray range, before a trailer for the 15th Anniversary disc of Stargate (next on my double-dip target list), before loading up a rather awkward animated menu. The disc also comes in one of those eco-cases with bits cut out of the plastic, something that really bugs me.
Incidentally this is one of those discs that shrink playback to a small window-boxed image to display a large menu screen when you click your pop-up menu button. I have to admit that’s kind of annoying.
The extras on this disc are taken from the Lionsgate DVD from a few years ago, although the most recent content was recorded in 2004.
Top of the list is the audio commentary from co-writer/producer John Eskow. It’s an interesting if gappy commentary, as he does lapse into watching the film instead of talking about it. It’s also obviously recorded prior to the second coming of Robert Downey Jr, as there is an ‘Ah Diddums’ element to his comments about the actor, a sentimental “What could have been”.
Flight Log is an EPK making of that lasts 4 minutes, heavy on clips and sound-bites.
Pre-Flight – The Storyboards of Air America lasts 5 minutes and offers a little compare and contrast.
Return Flight: Revisiting Air America lasts 22 minutes and is an interesting retrospective of the film again made in 2004, with interviews with some of the supporting cast and crew. It’s enlightening to hear the original intent of the film, how it was received, and there’s a look at the real Air America as well.
There is the theatrical trailer, and all of these extra features except the commentary are presented in 480i SD.
Finally, in the Also Available from Lionsgate section, you can watch the opening Lionsgate and Stargate trailers again.
I remember when I reviewed the film on DVD that while I certainly appreciated what it accomplished as an action comedy, I came down rather strongly against it being a biting indictment of the actual Air America, the CIA funded airline that operated in South East Asia as another element in the war in Vietnam. It seemed far too trivial, and entertaining to really serve as a comment on what is really a dark and sordid period in US foreign policy. There is still an element of that, but the more I watch Air America, the more that its satire becomes more effective. As discussed in the commentary, the filmmakers had the choice between going dark and realistic to tell their story, or to play it light and comic, and having the observations on the issues coming out in the humour. The wily Lemond, the party line toeing Rob Diehl, the disingenuous Senator Davenport all become effective caricatures when you watch the film in that light. The same goes for General Soong, getting high on capitalist dreams.
Also in the commentary, it’s stated that the film aimed to capture the same satire and wit of films like Catch 22 and M*A*S*H. It doesn’t quite manage that, as the boys own adventure, the action sequences and the stunts, and indeed the broader comedy tends to detract from that aspect. And it’s still easy enough to partake of the great screen chemistry between Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr as Gene Ryack and Billy Covington, the heart of a very entertaining action buddy movie and not pay attention to all that subversive political comment.
Air America is still great entertainment, a fun action movie that’s a blast to watch. But I can appreciate the satire now, which I totally missed out on the first few times I watched it. It may not be a classic in the same vein as the films it sought to emulate, but it certainly is effective at getting its message across. And who knows, it might get even better with age. As for this Blu-ray release, the film has never looked or sounded as good, and with this being a Region All disc, and very reasonably priced for import, there’s no reason that you should miss out.