Air America (Blu-ray) (1990)

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Released 4-Oct-2017

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Action Comedy None
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1990
Running Time 112:36
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Programme
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Roger Spottiswoode

Umbrella Entertainment
Starring Mel Gibson
Robert Downey Jr.
Nancy Travis
Ken Jenkins
David Marshall Grant
Lane Smith
Art LaFleur
Ned Eisenberg
Marshall Bell
David Bowe
Case Standard Blu-ray
RPI $19.95 Music Charles Gross

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English DTS HD Master Audio 7.1
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.40:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 1080p
Original Aspect Ratio 2.40:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    Adapted from the 1978 non-fiction novel of the same name by journalist Christopher Robbins, Air America strives to be both an anti-war political drama as well as an action-comedy, but it never quite comes together in any meaningful way. The film was helmed by director Roger Spottiswoode, who cut his teeth editing Sam Peckinpah movies (including Straw Dogs) and went on to direct the James Bond adventure Tomorrow Never Dies. Unfortunately, the director struggles with tone throughout Air America - Spottiswoode and co. visibly strived to recreate the success of other military comedies like 1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam, but the film lacks the spark of wittiness and personality to achieve this, even though it’s certainly a handsomely-mounted action-adventure.

    After losing his pilot license as a result of a low-flying stunt, Billy (Robert Downey Jr.) finds a chance to redeem himself by joining the “Air America” team in Laos during the Vietnam War. A covert operation overseen by the CIA, Air America pilots are tasked with delivering supplies, weapons and drugs to the area, while the American government denies any involvement with such endeavours. Taking to the bumpy skies, Billy is paired up with ace pilot Gene Ryack (Mel Gibson), who has a plan for his retirement: buy a cache of illegal weaponry from his brother-in-law, and sell it to the highest bidder. However, Billy grows weary of the criminal activities with which he is now involved, subsequently clashing with Gene. Meanwhile, United States Senator Davenport (Lane Smith) arrives in Laos for a “fact-finding” mission to investigate drug-running rumours. The CIA leaders of Air America rendezvous with the Senator, aiming to deceive him and hide Air America’s illegal activities.

    Since Air America was produced by Carolco Pictures and carried a hefty $35 million price-tag, it’s certainly pretty to look at, making great use of the marvellous Thai locations and featuring competent photography courtesy of master cinematographer Roger Deakins. It’s refreshing to see practical effects and real planes being used on-screen as well, and the action beats and aerial gymnastics do manage to temporarily raise the pulse. You certainly cannot fault the production values, as Air America looks professionally-produced right across the board. Nevertheless, it does run too long at about 110 minutes, and though the story is clear enough, the movie meanders as there’s not much life between the plot points. There is a pleasant plot detour in which Billy meets Gene’s family and gets to see his humble home, but there simply isn’t enough personality on-screen, and Spottiswoode is incapable of creating genuine narrative momentum. With the story playing out robotically, and with Spottiswoode’s hit-and-miss pacing, there’s not much replay value and the whole thing is both forgettable and humdrum.

    It’s evident that screenwriters John Eskow and Richard Rush, as well as director Spottiswoode took their cues from M*A*S*H, as there are satirical jabs and goofy jokes throughout, including a Buddhist monk blessing the airplanes and someone offering Juicy Fruit to Billy after a plane crash. However, many of the jokes either fall flat or fail to register due to the lack of actual wit - not even Bill Murray or Robin Williams could have done much with the material. On the upside, the soundtrack is littered with an array of classic songs, including “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones which is apparently contractually obligated to appear in every Vietnam War-era motion picture ever produced. In addition, Gibson still manages to emanate plenty of charisma, and he plays his role with an agreeable masculine swagger. Downey, meanwhile, was in his early days here, and he certainly tries his hardest whilst playing opposite such a big star, doing what he can with the mediocre material. Even when the movie is at its most stilted, Downey and Gibson are still watchable at least.

    Air America is not overly memorable, and despite its attempt to convey a weighty anti-war message as it tells this true-life story, it’s too disposable to make enough of an impact. Still, it is able to come to life in fits and starts thanks to the inherent charm of its two leads and the agreeable soundtrack. Plus, it’s hard not to be impressed with the technical construction of the picture, especially with Deakins’ cinematography. As a minor chronicle of the CIA’s clandestine weapon and drug trafficking in the Vietnam War, it’s at least worth a watch, but otherwise it will only be perceived as something of a historical curiosity since it features Martin Riggs and the future Iron Man. Perhaps a superior movie about the same topic will materialise sometime in the future.

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Transfer Quality


    Air America has been available on Blu-ray in the United States since 2009 courtesy of Lionsgate, but this is the first time that the movie has seen a Blu-ray release in Australia. I do not own the Lionsgate disc and therefore cannot compare the video quality (it's presumably the same HD master, mind you), but this AVC-encoded 1080p high definition presentation is of a high standard, and should please any fans of the movie hoping for a strong presentation. Compared to other movies of a similar vintage, Air America is a few notches above the average, which is probably thanks to the movie's sizeable budget and Roger Deakins' superlative cinematography, but I wouldn't say that it's reference quality. The master is extremely clean, free of bothersome print damage, though I did notice a few white specks here and there which only serves to remind you that the movie was shot on celluloid.

    Framed at the movie's original aspect ratio of 2.39:1, the Blu-ray presentation sports a tightly-refined grain structure, with the level of grain fluctuating from scene to scene (it's most notable in low-light scenes, particularly when Gibson and Downey traverse through the jungle at night). As a result, detail and textures are strong throughout, and the image never looks smeary. You can even make out patches of acne on Downey's face during close-ups. However, there are traces of digital noise reduction, as certain scenes look too smooth and lacking a refined "pop" of fine detail. In all likelihood, light DNR was applied to slightly reduce the level of grain, which should please grain haters, but videofiles will notice the telltale signs. Still, this isn't a deal-breaker by any means, as there is still ample fine detail on faces and clothing, particularly in close-ups and medium shots.

    Shot on location in Thailand, the presentation looks nicely saturated and colourful, and features strong colour depth and contrast. Although the transfer still carries the "look" of a movie from the late '80s/early '90s, it's still satisfyingly vivid. In addition, Umbrella's encoding is virtually flawless - I detected no traces of macroblocking, aliasing, banding or any other anomalies. Clarity also remains strong in night-time scenes, with nothing in the way of black crush marring the presentation. In spite of the transfer's shortcomings, Air America still looks unexpectedly terrific for its Australian Blu-ray debut.

    There are no subtitles.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    The back cover for Air America advertises a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, but the disc actually contains an even better lossless 7.1 mix, which is the sole audio option. A 7.1 track may seem like overkill for a movie from 1990 considering that much more recent movies have only received 5.1 mixes, but it's a huge asset to the disc which won't disappoint adamant audiofiles. In the first shot as a plane approaches, the rumble of the engine is accentuated with subwoofer activity, and panning is used whenever planes are seen flying from one side of the screen to the other. In addition, any scene involving a plane makes amazing use of the subwoofer. The entire track is crisp, too, as to be expected from a lossless audio mix. The movie is full of classic rock songs, which come through with satisfying clarity.

    Surround channels are often employed for maximum immersion. During scenes set in the wilds of Vietnam, ambience comes through from all channels, with sounds of insects making you feel as if you're there alongside the characters. (See the mini-golf game at the half-hour mark.) Gibson's character is seen piloting a helicopter in a number of scenes, and the noise from the blades are deafening. Just like the planes, the subwoofer accentuates the strength of the engines; you can feel the rumbling in your bones. An intense plane crash is all the more gripping with the thundering audio, and each gunshot is suitably loud. The climax is certainly loud, with rumbling explosions and non-diagetic gunshots all around. However, dialogue is mixed too low, which left me toggling the volume a fair bit whilst watching the disc. Of course, I cannot be sure if this is a fault of the source or the mix, but it is an issue.

    On the whole, Air America sounds great for its Blu-ray debut.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    Heartbreakingly, there are no extras to speak of, which is surprising given Umbrella's recent slate of special features-laden releases.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    Here are the special features that Lionsgate's region free American release contains:

    It's not even a close call. The Lionsgate disc wins hands down.


    It's easy to see why Umbrella would choose to finally release Air America on Blu-ray, since it features both Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson. The movie itself is fine, but it never quite takes off, and it doesn't have much replay value.

    Umbrella's Blu-ray release sports solid video and an excellent audio track, but unfortunately it's entirely bereft of special features. The disc is only worth buying if you like the movie and don't care about extras.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Callum Knox (I studied biology)
Thursday, November 02, 2017
Review Equipment
DVDLG UP970 4K UHD HDR Blu-ray Player, using HDMI output
DisplayLG OLED65E6T. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 2160p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. This audio decoder/receiver has not been calibrated.
AmplificationSamsung Series 7 HT-J7750W
SpeakersSamsung Tall Boy speakers, 7.1 set-up

Other Reviews NONE
Comments (Add)
NO subtitles, agaon - cztery