Roger Spottiswoode's "Air America" is partly glorious, partly junk, but unfortunately not in equal parts.
The picture takes place in Laos in 1969 in a war that officially didn't happen, at an airstrip that didn't exist. Its heroes are renegade pilots working for the CIA who are happy to fly whatever cargo they are asked to fly -- rice, pigs, guns, cocaine -- take their money and not ask too many questions.
Their employer -- ostensibly -- is Air America, and they live by its motto, "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime." The work they do is outrageously dangerous, conducted under berserk conditions, which seems to be what they like best. "The berserker the better." Trouble junkies is how Gene (Mel Gibson), the group's unofficial leader, describes them. "We've been mainlining danger for so long, nothing else gets us off."
Working from a script by Richard Rush and John Eskow, Spottiswoode builds his community of head-case misfits on a Howard Hawksian model -- they're cooled-out, '60s updates of the daredevil pilots who flew headlong in raging storms in "Only Angels Have Wings." Most of these guys are rejects. Billy (Robert Downey Jr.), for example, is a former traffic copter pilot for a Los Angeles radio station who pulled a low-flying stunt that cost him his license. Nobody told him that in joining up with Air America he was signing up for a private war, and being the new kid and still politically idealistic, the moral tightrope walking makes him uncomfortable.
Gene, who's been running his own private scam for years, buying up guns for a big payoff, is more practical. His politics aren't based exclusively on expediency, but he accepts as part of the bargain that their company runs coke for Gen. Lu Sung (Burt Kwouk) -- who's hoping to save up enough money to buy a Holiday Inn back in the States -- in exchange for assistance from Laotian troops. "We're not drug smugglers," Gene says. "We're pack mules."
Spottiswoode navigates these treacherous moral shoals without moralizing or stacking the deck. As he showed in "Under Fire," he understands the gray areas of international politics in the modern age, and where his movie excels is in its grasp of the absurdity that governs the life of the pilots and binds them together.
Too often, though, the movie collapses into routine action high jinks; there are too many close shaves, too much crashing and burning. The scenes involving the visit of a Bible-thumping U.S. senator (Lane Smith) and the attempts by the American brass to keep him in the dark are tedious and unfunny, and it doesn't help that in playing the senator Lane seems to be mimicking his own astounding performance as Richard Nixon on television in "The Final Days."
What carries us through a lot of this is the comfy rapport between the two stars. As an unpredictable gambling wild man, Gibson seems to be mostly coasting, running variations on the characters he played in the "Lethal Weapon" films and "Bird on a Wire." Still, he's playing a kind of masculine ideal here (as Cary Grant did in the Hawks film) and there's grace and assurance in his laid-back style. Gibson is perfectly matched with Downey, who's wilder and more youthfully kinetic. This is a magnetic young actor, regardless of the material. It's fun just watching him think things through on screen. These two have spirit, and Spottiswoode gives them space to interact. They give the movie wings.
Air America, at area theaters, is rated R and contains some adult situations and language.