It's one of recent history's stranger twists that John Milius's jingoistic, warmongering "Flight of the Intruder" should move onto our nation's movie screens this weekend. Timing indeed is everything, and in this case it transforms a routinely bad war movie -- one that would under normal circumstances vanish quickly from memory -- into an unsavory though chillingly relevant detail on the landscape of current events.
Set aboard an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea in 1972, the film is a "Top Gun" clone that looks with something like loving nostalgia at the glory days of the Vietnam War. In general the story centers on a group of American pilots flying the Navy's A-6 fighter jet -- nicknamed the Intruder -- and in particular on a fighter jock named Grafton (Brad Johnson) and his attempts to take his revenge on the North Vietnamese for the death of his partner. What he wants to do is fly into Hanoi, which is off-limits to American bombs but contains a large concentration of missiles, and blow them to smithereens.
Of course, Grafton manages to pull another pilot (Willem Dafoe) into his plot and execute his revenge. He is after all an American cowboy hero who makes his own rules and is darned cute in the process. Milius likes to operate on a mythic level, and "Intruder" is his comic-book depiction of the noble American soldier hero and the modern brotherhood of the sword. It's about camaraderie and male bonding, about grace under pressure, macho sacrifice and nervy disregard for any authority beyond your own conscience. More than that, though, it's about blowing stuff up, and while this may be questionable under normal circumstances, at this particular moment it seems offensive in the extreme.
All the movie's formulas are borrowed, down to the pilots' nicknames. The actors cover themselves with more embarrassment than glory. Perhaps the most egregiously cliched performance is turned in by Danny Glover, who as the carrier's commanding officer must bellow his utter contempt for his men while at the same time signaling his deep and abiding love and respect. Johnson is supposed to bring the young John Wayne to mind, but he contributes so little beyond this that you feel as if you're watching a stand-in for a movie star rather than the real thing. Only Dafoe, who underplays so deftly that he seems to have one foot in the movie and one foot out, manages to slide through without earning a black mark on his permanent record.
What the filmmakers are hoping for is a repeat of the phenomenal success with "Top Gun." And of course their dream might come true. But what the timing of this casual celebration of war demonstrates is just how morally out of step they are.
Flight of the Intruder, at area theaters, is rated PG-13.