Air America (film): Wikis


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Air America

Promotional movie poster for Air America.
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
Produced by Mario Kassar
Andrew G. Vajna
Written by Christopher Robbins
John Eskow
Richard Rush
Starring Mel Gibson
Robert Downey Jr.
Nancy Travis
David Marshall Grant
Michael Dudikoff
Lane Smith
Cinematography Roger Deakins
Studio Carolco Pictures
Distributed by TriStar Pictures
Release date(s) August 10, 1990
Running time 112 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $ 35,000,000

Air America is a 1990 American action comedy film directed by Roger Spottiswoode, starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. as Air America pilots, during the Vietnam War, flying missions in Laos. The protagonists discover their planes are used by other government agents to smuggle heroin; and then, they must avoid being made patsies in a frame-up.

The plot is adapted from Christopher Robbins' 1979 non-fiction book, chronicling the CIA financed airline during the Vietnam War to transport weapons and supplies within Laos and other areas of Indochina subsequent to the North Vietnamese invasion of Laos. The publicity for the film — advertised as a light-hearted buddy movie -- implied a tone that differs greatly with the tone of the actual film, which includes such serious themes as an anti-war political spin, focus on the opium trade, and a negative portrayal (played by actor Burt Kwouk as "General Lu Soong") of Royal Laotian General Vang Pao.



In late 1969, Billy Covington (Downey) works as a helicopter traffic pilot for a Los Angeles radio station, and loses his pilot's licence after breaking FAA regulations. His piloting skills, bravery and disregard for the law are noticed by a mysterious stranger, who tells Billy that he can get his licence back if he accepts a job in Laos working for a "strictly civilian" company called Air America; the stranger insists that "there is no war in Laos, you can take that to the bank".

Billy, unemployed and unable to find work, takes the job and flies to Laos. By the end of his first day in Laos, he learns that fellow Air America pilot Gene Ryack (Gibson) is an arms merchant who uses official flights to buy black-market weapons for his private cache. His dream, which he refers to as his "retirement plan," is to make a sale big enough so that he can afford to quit his job at Air America.

The next day, Senator Davenport (Lane Smith) arrives in Laos on a "fact finding mission" to determine if Washington D.C rumors are true about Air America's drug smuggling business. Major Lemond and Rob Diehl, CIA leaders of Air America, have a cover-up in place. Senator Davenport is shown around refugee camps, shrines & temples, and major cities in a careful deception to keep him out of the loop. At the same time, Billy and Jack Neely are shot down in their C-123 cargo plane while airdropping livestock into rural villages. Air America stages a large rescue effort, which turns out to be nothing but a cover for the transport of opium; when General Soong's plane arrives at the crash site, his soldiers load the plane with bags of opium, but leave Billy and Jack behind, stranding them in hostile territory. As Communist forces move in, Gene and another pilot arrive. Billy's crew evacuates in the other plane while he boards Gene's helicopter.

In the ensuing escape, Billy and Gene's helicopter takes fire and crashes, stranding them in the jungles of Laos, where they are ultimately captured by a rural tribe. Gene lets his business instincts shine through when he notices that the tribe is using obsolete and unreliable guns, managing to convince the tribe to spare their lives in exchange for better weapons. Allowed to go free, Billy and Gene retreat to Gene's house, where Billy is surprised to discover that Gene has a wife and children. Already disillusioned with America's actions in Laos, Billy is convinced by Gene to quit his job with Air America — but before he leaves, Billy wants to get even with General Soong for betraying him when he crashed.

Mel Gibson at the premiere of Air America in 1990.

Meanwhile, Senator Davenport is becoming upset when he is not being shown the operations of Air America, and he demands to know who is smuggling heroin. Soon after returning to Air America the pilots are informed that Jack was killed during his search for Billy and Gene, and Gene is offended when he later learns that the senator has been led to believe that Jack is the culprit behind the drug trafficking. In retaliation for this misinformation, and for Soong's earlier betrayal, Billy purchases grenades on the black market and uses them to blow up the heroin factory. Unfortunately, the guards see him running away, and General Soong and Major Lemond use him as their fall guy.

The next day, Gene finds a buyer for his arsenal, allowing him to leave gunrunning, quit Air America, and take his family out of the country. Meanwhile, Billy accepts one more flight before he actually quits; he and co-pilot Babo are assigned to transport flour to a refugee camp. When Babo and Billy are instructed to land at an airstrip for "routine inspection", Babo reveals that such a sudden inspection is actually a non-routine situation. Billy immediately suspects a set-up, and a search through their cargo reveals several kilos of heroin hidden in flour sacks. He refuses to land and tries to fly away, only to find his fuel gauge has been tampered with and he is nearly out of gas. Babo and Billy crash-land on the same airstrip where Billy crashed a few days earlier, and use the wreckage of the previous crash to hide the smaller plane.

Gene, who is on his way to make his final, and largest, weapons delivery, makes a detour to rescue Babo and Billy. Despite Gene's desire to make his delivery so he can be free of Air America, Billy convinces him to respond to a distress call from the refugee camp, which has been caught in the crossfire between General Soong's men and a band of local rebels. Gene's plane is the closest, so they stop at the camp to pick up the USAID in charge of the camp (played by Nancy Travis). However, the aid refuses to leave without the refugees, and there is not enough room on the plane for both cargo and passengers. After some initial resistance, Gene reluctantly sacrifices his retirement plan by dumping his cargo to make room for the refugees, and uses the explosion of his weapons cache to cover their escape.

Still in the air, Diehl and Lemond attempt to convince the senator that Billy's refusal to concede to inspection proves that he is the culprit behind the drug smuggling. The senator, however, sees through their lies and threatens to reveal their operation to Washington. Lemond argues that such an action would be political suicide on the senator's part because, as Lemond insists, "the President loves me." However, closing titles reveal that Diehl and Lemond were indeed exposed, and would later go on to lead checkered careers in Washington politics.


Robert Downey Jr. at the premiere of Air America in 1990.




Director Richard Rush tried to develop the film in 1985, as the first comedy about Vietnam. Carolco Pictures bought the project as Rush wrote a script and found locations. Sean Connery was attached to play the older pilot, Gene Ryack, and the younger flier Billy Covington was at different times to be played by Bill Murray, Jim Belushi and Kevin Costner. The project was sold to producer Daniel Melnick after Connery and Costner became too expensive. Melnick hired screenwriter John Eskow to write a new script; and first hired director Bob Rafelson to work with Rush, but eventually hiring director Roger Spottiswoode. Mel Gibson was cast for a reported $7 million, for the role of Ryack, and Robert Downey, Jr. held the role of Covington. Nancy Travis was cast as Corinne Landroaux (replacing Ally Sheedy), and Michael Dudikoff was cast as General Lee.


The budget of Air America increased to $35 million as the production involved a 500-member crew shooting in 49 different locations between Thailand, London, and Los Angeles; operating between eight and 15 cameras at a time. The production was plagued by two earthquakes and a typhoon. The producers rented 26 planes from the Thai military, and some of the stunt flyers refused to perform some of the tasks, with 60-year-old veterans being drafted for the more demanding turns. Pepsi-Cola wanted the filmmakers to use a fictional soda rather than show opium being refined at their abandoned factory. Therefore, the producers added a line about wondering if Pepsi knew what was going on.


Further reading

  • Air America by Christopher Robbins
  • The Ravens, Pilots of the Secret War in Laos by Christopher Robbins
  • Eugene DeBruin
  • Jane Hamilton-Merritt (1999). Tragic Mountains. ISBN 0253207568
  • Robert Curry (2004). Whispering Death, "Tuag Nco Ntsoov": ...Our Journey with the Hmong in the Secret War for Laos ...Lub caij peb thiab Hmoob koom tes ua ntsug rog ntsiag to nyob Los Tsuas teb. ISBN 0595318096

External links


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