There are so many ways a film can go wrong. They can be bungled upon their release, either by poor timing or by a misguided marketing campaign. They can be ruined in post-production by the studio taking it away from the filmmaker and hacking it to pieces. They can be undone during principal photography via circumstances beyond the filmmaker’s control or because they have too much control. Some films can be unmade before they’re even made. This is what happened to Air America (1990). What started as a hard-hitting look at the secretly CIA-run airline that brought in weapons and supplies to anti-communist forces in Indochina during the Vietnam War and was to star Sean Connery and Kevin Costner and directed by Richard Rush, eventually became a feel-good buddy comedy starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr. that was more Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) than Platoon (1986), only wackier. Where did it all go wrong?
Like with Good Morning, Vietnam, Air America starts off presenting a misfit group of servicemen, this time pilots, flying secret missions in Laos, often aiding and abetting local General Vang Pao (Burt Kwouk) and his lucrative opium drug trade. Billy Covington (Downey) is the audience surrogate, a maverick civilian pilot who's having trouble holding down a regular gig stateside and is convinced by a recruiter that Air America is his only option left.
The opening sequence of the movie sets the serio-comic tone and demonstrates the wildly mismatched sides at war with each other as we see a large cargo plane get shot down by a peasant with a rifle from extremely long range. It’s an absurd image that is soon offset by a shot of the plane wreckage and the dead pilot lying on the tarmac. The movie then swings back to comedy when CIA agent Rob Diehl (David Marshall Grant) asks veteran pilot Gene Ryack (Gibson) if the man is dead to which he deadpans, “Well, Rob, if he’s not dead, he’s very, very calm.” It is this painfully unfunny dialogue so early on that does not bode well for the rest of the movie.
Fortunately, the movie improves considerably when Billy arrives in country and is introduced to his fellow pilots. He quickly finds out that, as he puts it, "I was always the weirdest guy in the room. Here I'm not in the running." We meet the most interesting part of Air America: the wonderful supporting cast, populated by genre vets like Art LaFleur (The Blob), Ned Eisenberg (The Burning), David Bowe (U.H.F.), and the great Tim Thomerson (Trancers) who all look like they're having a blast playing oddball pilots and all-around degenerates. It is LaFleur that steps up and sells “crazy” dialogue such as, “I’m coming from the dark side of the moon and I’m going back there, too, soon,” because of the way he carries himself in the scene that convincingly puts Billy on edge. It’s a shame that it doesn’t go on longer so that we can meet the rest of these burn-outs.
Instead, the first half of the movie is all set-up, establishing these rag-tag pilots and their eccentric way of doing things, their flying missions (which seems to involve a lot of crashing), and how Major Donald Lemond (Scrubs' Ken Jenkins) and his second-in-command Rob are in cahoots with General Pang while a cavalcade of 1960s hits (except for an atrocious cover of The Doors' "Love Me Two Times" by Aerosmith) plays endlessly on the soundtrack.
Air America is at its best when we see these guys carousing and cutting loose, which sadly, isn't often. We must make due with little bits of business like seeing Babo (Thomerson) as the third wheel on Billy’s orientation flight, or a scene that shows their off-hours antics, drinking and playing mini-golf. Once again, LaFleur takes center stage as Jack gets in Billy’s face and ends up shooting another pilot’s ball in mid-putt. The two almost get into it and we get a glimpse of how cracked these guys are and that they’ve been at this for way too long. Of all the character actors the filmmakers cast as the pilots they must’ve really been impressed with LaFleur and what he was doing daily as he gets most of the screen-time of any of them including a memorable mission Jack flies with Billy where they are shot down during a supply run. There are some decent intense exchanges between the two men as they realize that they’re also transporting a whackload of the General’s opium and must fend for themselves when he arrives to rescue his merchandise and not them. These scenes are so entertaining and fun to watch that it makes you want to see a movie that focuses just on these guys with Billy and Gene as supporting characters instead.
Rob and the Major provide a rare glimpse of the darker movie that could have been when he tells Billy over drinks, “A secret war is the way to go. No reporters, no T.V. You black out the war like a pro football game.” His superior appears and clears things up just in case what he was saying wasn’t obvious enough, that they treat what they do as a business and a war with no difference between them.
It must be said that Downey and Gibson have some nice moments together and it’s not the kooky pilot shtick but a down moment where Gene tells Billy what’s he all about as he tells him, “We’re all a bunch of trouble junkies. We’ve been mainlining danger and adrenaline for so long nothing else gets us off. It’s kind of sick.” He lays all his cards on the table and tells his young friend how things are in a refreshingly honest and direct way that is well-acted by Gibson. This scene also plants the seeds for Gene’s eventual redemption as Billy’s youthful rebel begins to remind him of when he was that age.
For years, Air America was a passion project for filmmaker Richard Rush who was set to make it for Carolco Pictures in 1985 on a $15 million budget based on the book of the same name by Christopher Robbins. His vision had a main character who was a Vietnamese spy that had infiltrated Air America. He had put a lot of work into the screenplay and considered it his finest, even better than the one he wrote for The Stunt Man (1980), which he held in high regard. Rush was interested in casting Sean Connery and the actor came over to the house twice a week for an hour or two reading the script together. They got along quite well and when Rush was fired from the project, Connery immediately quit.
Rush scouted locations in Southeast Asia and began casting for his film. His first choice for Connery’s co-star was Bill Murray but after extended talks he was briefly replaced by Jim Belushi before Kevin Costner showed interest in the project. Rush claims the actor was very interested but he took too long to decide and Good Morning, Vietnam came out and stole their thunder (and the box office). It didn’t help that his asking price had increased and Carolco did not want to pony up the rumored $15 million for both actors. In September 1987, independent film producer Dan Melnick sold his production company to Carolco and took over Air America. It was at this point that the project changed from a gritty expose that Rush has envisioned into a studio blockbuster that Melnick envisioned. He fired Rush and the two leads quickly departed as well. Melnick remembers, “They hadn’t been able to get a good script on it. It couldn’t attract stars. It was just lumbering along.” Rush asked for his script back and Melnick refused, giving the filmmaker back $1 million of his $1.5 million pay-or-play deal. Rush said he felt like the “victim of a hostile takeover.”
Melnick hired screenwriter John Eskow and director Bob Rafelson to take over and they all went to Malaysia and Thailand to scout locations. Malaysia was ruled out, deemed “a repressive society” by Melnick and the team opted for Thailand. When they returned from their trip, a Writer’s Guild strike delayed rewrites on the project. The budget and scope of the movie increased and this necessitated an international movie star. They couldn’t get anyone to commit unless a script was available. Some aspects of Rush’s script survived, such as the dropping of counterfeit money over Laos to destroy the economy and the dropping of oversized condoms as a form of psychological warfare.
To further complicate matters, shooting in Thailand had to take place during the country’s dry season, approximately October through April. Melnick and Rafelson went off to Africa to make Mountains of the Moon (1990) while Eskow returned to work on the script as the strike had ended. Rafelson never came back and he was replaced by Roger Spittiswoode (Under Fire). For the role of Gene, Melnick had originally wanted a veteran actor like Sean Connery or Paul Newman with Mel Gibson eyed to play Billy. Thanks to the success of Lethal Weapon (1987), Gibson was hot at the box office and used his clout to play Gene. A few adjustments to the script were made and Robert Downey, Jr. was cast as Billy.
By several accounts, the production was a challenging one with 15 cameras, three units and 49 separate locations used during the 14 weeks of principal photography in rough conditions on location in Northern Thailand where 200 toilets were installed. At one point, 20 members of the crew were stricken with an unknown flu. The production rented 26 airplanes and helicopters from the Thai military and in one month encountered four serious in-flight emergencies that, in one case, almost resulted in casualties.
The original version was going to be made by Rush and starring Connery and Murray. Can you imagine what that would've been like? Alas, their version was probably too dark and too critical of United States foreign policy to be unleashed on an unsuspecting mainstream moviegoing audience. Once Gibson and Downey, Jr. came on board as the leads, it softened all the edges and you get what was finally released: an easygoing, feature-length sitcom that washes over you.
Almost. The last third of the movie tries to stick to the Good Morning, Vietnam playbook by having Gibson's cynical pilot develop a conscience with the help of Downey and show what the General's drug trade is doing to the local population. Gibson and Downey even get stranded in the dense jungle and must make it back to base just like Robin Williams does in Good Morning, Vietnam! Also, Rob and the Major are antagonists to our heroes much as Bruno Kirby and J.T. Walsh’s characters were in Barry Levinson’s film. You know in a movie like this nothing really bad is going to happen to Gene or Billy and they get to literally fly off into the sunset while a tacked-on epilogue tries to temper things by explaining that the two corrupt U.S. government officials managed to emerge from Laos unscathed, protected from on high to go on being evil S.O.B.s. Air America isn’t an example of a good movie inside of a bad one, trying to get out, but rather a good idea that was tinkered with and a mediocre movie was the end result.
Clarkson, Wensley. Mel Gibson: Man on a Mission. 2015.
Anson, Robert Sam. “Fly the Friendly Skies.” Premiere. September 1990.
Rowlands, Paul. “An Interview with Richard Rush.” Money into Light. November 2017.
Wilson, John M. “The Fine Art of Making the Deal.” Los Angeles Times. May 27, 1990.