Monday, 20 February 2023

Fire Birds (1990)

Director: David Green
Writers: Step Tyner & John K. Swensson and Dale Dye
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Tommy Lee Jones and Sean Young

Index: The First Thirty.

For a movie released in 1990, this could not have looked more eighties if it had tried, with its War on Drugs helicopter porn, the whirring blades and gleaming black flanks of horribly beweaponed American military choppers shot against the sun at every possible opportunity. Add Nicolas Cage playing Jake Preston playing Tom Cruise playing Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and it’s about as derivative as it gets.

It’s too easy to call it a Top Gun ripoff. Yes, it is, but it has all the dramatic depth of a single episode of Airwolf padded out to 86 minutes. It really is one of those movies you can write in your head scene by scene before any of them happen.

Let me take you back in the day, just in case you’re too young to remember. It’s a game of good and bad.

What’s bad? Well, drugs are bad and South American cartels are really bad. We don’t see an ounce of drugs outside of a news broadcast, though, and we don’t see any cartel members either, as they’re distilled down to one highly talented pilot and mercenary killer in his fast Scorpion tactical assault helicopter. He’s Eric Stoller, the face to this MacGuffin.

What’s good? Well, the good ol’ U.S. of A. is good, of course, and George Bush Sr., its tough on crime president who’s quoted at the very beginning of the film. The U.S. military is good too, because they’re the president’s right arm of violence who, with the right training and a hefty amount of that sleek xenomorph black flying tech, can save the world from terrorist drug dealing commie scumbuckets. You know, the ones who listen to albums with a “parental guidance” sticker on the front. They probably play D&D and grow their hair long and protest for civil rights. The traitors.

Cage is front and centre for the whole damn movie and his story arc is clear from his very first scene. He’s in South America, supporting the local anti-drug forces and his outfit meets Eric Stoller and his Scorpion death machine. It has to be said that not everyone who went out came back and Jake Preston pleads his case to the top brass in the most clich├ęd and patriotic way possible because “they’re heroes and they should be avenged.”

We’re six and a half minutes in and that’s all we need to write the entire rest of the script. Let’s see now.

The military are well aware that the cartels are better funded and better equipped, so they set up a program to match Stoller’s helicopter with bigger helicopters and better helicopters, which means a host of Apache twin-turboshaft attack helicopters that look badass shimmying out of the sun behind the opening credits.

Who are they going to send to Fort Mitchell to be part of that program? You’re spot on. It’s Jake Preston, ladies and gentlemen, who has a pair of aviator sunglasses and cocky grin. He’s so damn good that he aces the simulations on ludicrous level while shouting to anyone who might be watching, “I am the greatest!”

Ah, but he has to have a flaw. How about he can’t handle the lights out mode because he has an eye dominance problem and can’t deal with the computer sighting system. Our great white hope is going to flunk out.

But wait! There’s going to be someone here at Fort Mitchell who can resist his charm and that’ll be some ex-girlfriend who’s a bitchin’ helicopter scout (c’mon, she has to be at least a level below the guys) and she’s a tough and independent feminist chick who moans about neanderthal men but still ends up as a damsel in distress calling for Jake to save her.

Oh, and a mentor too, with a jovial Tommy Lee Jones sort of toughness, so that between him and the ex, they’ll find a cool way to help Jake conquer his one and only problem so that he can stay in the program, fly back down to the Catamarca Desert at just the right moment and wreak vengeance for his buddy and the whole goddamn country too by shooting down Eric Stoller’s Scorpion bitch chopper in aerial conflict like a real badass patriotic hero.

Oh, sorry, did I spoil anything? I left a whole bunch of stuff out and you can write that too. I guarantee that there’s nothing in this feature that will surprise you.

You already know that Nicolas Cage has the Tom Cruise role. The ex-girlfriend, Billie Lee Guthrie, is Sean Young, her short dark hair the icing on that particular cake. Oh, and who did they get to play the Tommy Lee Jones mentor? How about Tommy Lee Jones himself! And yes, he steals every single scene in this film with a singular and utterly effortless charm. Sure, he could do this in his sleep but he would sell it in his sleep too.

To be fair, Cage gets better as the film runs on. And he has to because he’s awful in those opening scenes, testifying to the generals. He spouts outrageous War on Drugs propaganda, appropriately for a character who believes the guff that comes out of his mouth—America!—but it’s painfully obvious that Cage doesn’t. He doesn’t even try to be believable; he just goes all dead eyed as if he can’t believe the dialogue that he’s been given.

But he gets better, when he turns into cocky Maverick lite. He’s not even close to what Tom Cruise did with the same part, but he’s miscast rather than awful. He was at his best playing a varied assortment of misfits and weirdos. The All-American poster boy was just not right for him. Fortunately Tommy Lee Jones is here to save everyone’s ass, because he’s perfect.

In Age of Cage, biographer Keith Phipps is of the opinion that the turn of the decade was a paradigm shift for American film, as it was for American music. Cage had been doing weirdo movies, cameos in indies and obscure features abroad, so was out of the public eye. Now was the time to see what worked, so he tried a few very diferent parts. This one was the patriotic American hero experiment and it was a bust. Oh well, no worries. What’s next?

I can’t say that I disliked Fire Birds. It’s easy to like. In fact, it’s too easy to like because that is all it has going for it. If it had been a B movie that cost a million bucks, it could have been a fun rental with pizza and beer. But it cost $22 million because it was supposed to be an A list blockbuster. And, on that level, it failed, as did Cage and everyone else in the cast and crew not named Tommy Lee Jones.

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