"High Road to China" is an aerodrone, the kind of movie where the extras fall down before the explosions. There's lots of action, but the director must have had a bag over his head. And the stars are ducking more cliches than bullets.
TV's Tom Selleck, leading hunk, plays a former World War I pilot now running a dinky flying school outside Istanbul. Boring Bess Armstrong co-stars as the shrewish American princess who hires him and his planes to find her father. And Robert Morley is the deliciously evil partner who schemes to take over the family business.
Selleck and Armstrong, they said, didn't get along during the shooting. Indeed, their chemistry is a lot like a lab accident. Their parts call for those little spats that really say I love you, but these two seem to genuinely loathe each other. He belches in her face, slaps her down and otherwise mistreats her, not that she's a real cupcake.
The film has a decent flight plan, with the sour couple barnstorming across two continents. But the dialogue was hacksawed out of '30s air shows like "Test Pilot" or "Dawn Patrol." After one dogfight, she allows: "You were pretty good up there, ace." He relents, "You weren't so bad yourself."
The two crack pilots first land in Afghanistan, where they're surrounded by sword- toting nomads. The Khan, dressed like a shag rug, imprisons them. To escape the cruel Khan, three people -- his slave, Armstrong and the heavyset Ned Beatty -- jam into a cramped biplane, a two-seater. How'd they do that? We'll never know. Next time we see the trio, they've landed in Nepal where they learn from the village priest: "The oxen are slow, but the earth is patient." And we learn, a slow boat is often swifter than a high road.
Then it's up and away over the Himalayas to Sinkiang Province, where they continue their search for dad. Even crosscutting to Morley can't keep this clumsy clipper from crashing. So fly stand-by; there should be no problem landing a seat. HIGH ROAD TO CHINA At area theaters.