Set in Laos, Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, Gene Ryack is a pilot for the CIA’s secret Asian airline, Air America, whose motto “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime” promises uncommon adventure for thrill-addicted pilots. Joining Gene is fired helicopter traffic-pilot Billy Covington, who is shocked to see they are being shot at as they air drop livestock and other support to Hmong hill tribes below.
Corruption is universal as Billy discovers that Gene is working out his own retirement scam by also engaging in a private gun-running scheme. Worse still is the fact that Air America is being used to fly opium from the highlands to Laotian ally General Sung, who, turning it into heroin, returns the favor by cooperating in the war effort.
Senator Davenport arrives to investigate. Having “found the Lord,” he is characterized as buffoonish and is given the run-around treatment by the major, who, out of expediency, has sanctioned Air America’s illegal operations. The major assures Sen. Davenport that he’ll find the “rotten apples” responsible for the dope running.
All this drug-smuggling bothers Billy, so he blows up Sung’s heroin-making laboratory. In order to frame Billy as a scapegoat, thus providing the senator with the “rotten apple”, Sung and the major retaliate by planting heroin in Billy’s next air drop. However, Billy outwits them, and Davenport figures out the frame-up.
The other hero’s problem is resolved when Gene dumps his cargo of guns in order to transport some refugees. He is not remorseful. In fact, there is not much to commend about this hero, whose flippant attitude toward flying is summed up by the comment, “If you can’t laugh at war, what’s the use in fighting?”
This may be an affront to some moviegoers, who will be relieved to know that AIR AMERICA is largely unencumbered by ugly details, or by any real degree of historical accuracy. For instance, all the able-bodied Hmong males were killed early on in the war, so the army was made up mostly of children. Sometimes Air America’s pilots were called on to haul stacks of these children’s corpses in nets slung beneath the plane. The smell was so bad they had to stick Tiger Balm up their noses to keep from gagging.
Nor are Ryack’s endorsements of Buddha, or silly antics very amusing (such as tying a dangling rope from his helicopter to a sleeping Billy and then flying off). By far the biggest hindrance to AIR AMERICA is its language. Though the movie has no sex, fornication, or violence committed against individuals, there are, on the other hand, numerous instances of profanity and obscenity mixed into the script, which is sad considering that sometimes the airway lingo used by the pilots is quite engaging.
In between all the action and jokes, the film professes to take a position of moral outrage at U.S. conduct in Laos. It is a fact that Air America pilots could have servants, a beautiful house on the Mekong and commute to the war, returning at night to a dry martini served by an adoring and replaceable girlfriend.
However, the script ends up settling for a half-baked, ill-informed and muddled conspiracy theory, when Gene makes the statement that no one has won a war without controlling the opium trade. Hence, the whole rotten war was fought to gain control of the poppy fields — and thus the heroin business — to keep funding the whole rotten war. This is just plain wrong, like suggesting that wars are fought to improve weaponry.
The tone and mood of the movie are highly sixtyish, with many songs from that era, like Creedence’s “Run Through the Jungle.” Shot in Thailand, some of the crash-landings and rescue operations are mildly entertaining. In one scene, Gene and Billy are captured, but exchange guns for their lives. Yet, there is just too much alcohol abuse, references to prostitution, lewd joking, and obscenity to recommend this film to anyone — even to real Air America pilots.
Says one, “All I know is I hauled more rice than grows in China, carried God knows how many refugees and got shot at for my trouble. There were hard rice (ammo) drops, too, but the heroin smuggling and private gunrunning is bull…And I never met no … Australian in Air America neither.”
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Several profanities and obscenities; lewd joking, obscene gestures and sexual innuendo; references to prostitution; alcohol abuse; and, a slight ridicule of the Christian faith.