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‘Fire Birds’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 25, 1990


David Greene
Nicolas Cage;
Sean Young;
Tommy Lee Jones
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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For those of us wondering -- in light of the radical changes in the global body politic -- who our enemies are now, "Fire Birds" steps in with a few answers.

In South America, a powerful, well-funded, well-armed drug cartel is spreading its influence to the north. They've got jets; they've got choppers; they've got everything a first-class enemy needs, including a glowering terrorist leader (whose agent, it seems, has sent the enemy his glossies). Their target, this jingoistic copter adventure tells us, is the American way of life, whose treasured values they intend to subvert with their dread white powder. Forget the Nazis, forget the Commies, these guys are great. When they are blown out of the sky, you can cheer without the slightest trace of conscience.

"Fire Birds" is a primitive dogfight movie, with Nicolas Cage and Sean Young as its stars, that serves as a kind of extended commercial for the U.S. Army and its AH-64 Gunship helicopter, also known as the Apache. The point, the film's press notes inform us, was to make a picture that does for the Army what "Top Gun" did for the Navy.

Yeah, dream on.

It would be hard to reduce filmmaking to its basics more than "Fire Birds" does. It's more video game than motion picture -- the first coin-operated movie. Director David Green and his writers, Nick Thiel and Paul F. Edwards, have created a story line that intrudes only slightly on the action sequences. Whenever it's not in the air, the movie is totally dead, but even then there are only so many ways to blow up a helicopter. Plus the midair fights are shot so much like the ones in "Top Gun" that you feel as if you've already seen them.

There are a few distractions. The British cinematographer Tony Imi has given the footage a ravishing golden burnish. And there seems to be some sort of contest between Cage, who plays a maverick fighter ace, and Tommy Lee Jones, his flight instructor, for top billing in the category of skyrocketing weirdness.

Ultimately Cage wins the battle by virtue of sheer florid excess. What we're seeing here from this bonkers star isn't anything we haven't seen before, say in "Vampire's Kiss" or, to a lesser degree, in "Moonstruck," but that doesn't make it any less nuts. With his sleepy eyelids and Modigliani face, Cage looks more like a cartoon wolf than a conventional leading man. And at times he seems to nearly twirl his lines around his head as if he were doing rope tricks with them.

Cage is a magnetic presence, for sure, but little things -- like making an actual connection with his costar -- are beyond him. But any actor performing opposite Sean Young, the undead starlet, may face similar problems. The real relationships, though, are between the actors and their hardware, so this hardly matters. After their training, the young aces head for South America (the filmmakers are never specific about the country) to do their patriotic duty, wipe out our drug-peddling enemies and make the world safe again for democracy. We win, but in a way you wish we hadn't. All may be fair in love and war, but that doesn't mean we have to like it.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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