Written By Zak Attack
A dramatic journey through the dreck we all know and love
Long time readers may have noticed a change in the title format up above. That’s right, Why Did I Watch This? has now become Netflixing Under the Influence! Since my film-watching decisions have become increasingly terrible, we at Action A Go Go thought it best to rationalize these with the closest friend to poor decision making: booze.
While the title above does imply I’m watching these films via a certain brand (Netflix), this also applies to Amazon Prime, Hulu, and my expansive collection primarily stuffed with dvds I picked up when Blockbuster went out of business.
Why Did I Watch This?
In another case of a movie expiring from my Netflix Instant Queue, I watched Flight of the Intuder. It stood at #3,764 in my overall dvd queue. “Wait! My queue only goes to 500,” you might say if you’ve tested the limits of your Netflix subscription. While true… I, in perfectly obsessive fashion, have a Google Doc full of “Queue Overflow” numbering up to #3,880. Yes, Flight of the Intruder is in the bottom 3% of my “queue”. It doesn’t matter… if I didn’t watch it this weekend, I’d NEVER watch it… and obviously that’s a tragedy of cinema, right? I don’t care if Netflix did think I would only give it 2.8 out of 5 stars!
How Did I Watch It?
The days after Thanksgiving can be an especially lonely time. After the rush of the gargantuan meal on Thursday, most people like to use the whole weekend to decompress. I watched a ton of movies over this period. Actually, I even keep an Entertainment Diary. Hold on a sec… *rustles through Word document on computer desktop*. Ok, I watched eleven movies over those three days. Not bad.
In the spirit of the “rebranding” of this feature I got a super cheap 18-pack of Miller Light at the Rite Aid down the street. They even come in the old cans from the 80’s, as if to heighten my nostalgia for the early 90’s. It was super late too. If I accidentally passed out while watching it, this was going to be completely gone from Instant Watch by the time I woke up.
What Did I Watch?
I hate to say it, but Flight of the Intruder can be simply summed up as a version of Top Gun with Navy bombers instead of Navy fighters. Brad Johnson (code name: “Cool Hand”; real name: not Luke, but Jake), is a bomber pilot assigned with taking out “strategic targets” during the Vietnam War. However, the targets are rarely strategic at all. Due to the tenuous nature of current peace talks, it’s not politically prudent to attack anything that is actually in North Vietnam because, according to the movie, it would cause them to leave the negotiating table. When the Navy thinks they’re bombing a truck park or a factory and fail to see secondary explosions after their drop, it’s pretty clear to them that their mission just resulted in the destruction of an empty treeline or a random field. During an early raid against one of these pointless targets, Cool Hand’s bombardier is killed. The mental anguish of the pilots being ordered to risk their lives for nothing is well established in these opening few minutes. Since the source novel was written by a former Grumman A-6 Intruder pilot (Stephen Coonts) in Vietnam, the idea is poised to be an intriguing examination at the rules of engagement highlighting the absurdities of war. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t follow through on the promise of this premise at all.
Cool Hand gets reamed out by Commander Frank Camparelli (the always welcome Danny Glover) when he complains about the needless sacrifices of the United States Military and is unceremoniously teamed up with hot shot veteran, Virgil Cole (Willem Dafoe). Cole is brash, grizzled, and kind of crazy. Dafoe gives him a dynamic and unhinged likeability that almost threatens to make the movie good! Regardless of this twinkle of unpredictability, he acts as a mentor for the increasingly frustrated Cool Hand. One of the more interesting action scenes involves Cole taking him out on SAM duty (surface-to-air missiles) in the dead of night. Here they have to fly in a plane Cool Hand’s never flown before and undergo the dangerous task of attacking the anti-aircraft vehicles head-on to clear a path for the fighter pilots the following morning. There is a lot of explanation of military tactics and technical talk which I assume is straight from the novel. Director John Milius (Conan the Barbarian) may spend a little too much time in the cockpit, but this scene is where we get the most explosions and a thrilling dogfight with a MIG (there goes that inevitable Top Gun comparison again).
As if realizing the film is a bit overly serious, there are some strange extended sequences with the fighters on shore leave in a town filled with Vietnamese prostitues. It’s where we have a good ol’ fashioned barfight and discover Boxman’s (Tom Sizemore) potential bastard child. He’s touched by the prospect of fatherhood and has a scene where he excitedly talks about his plans to settle down and start a family with the mother. SPOILER ALERT: That means he’s going to die.
There is also a shoe-horned in romance between Cool Hand and Callie (Rosanna Arquette), who he meets while expressing his condolences to his dead navigator’s wife. It’s given short shrift and stinks of the old days of Hollywood where they’d throw two romantic leads in with the Marx Brothers just because some producer thought that all movies needed a love story. They meet, they go out once, they have sex… and then the next morning they’re discussing marriage. The storyline with Boxman and the prostitute who only has one line of dialogue was more fleshed out.
Speaking of Tom Sizemore, after his character dies from another strategically pointless mission, Cool Hand and Cole get a plan to straight up just steal a plane and bomb Hanoi. The machinations to sell this morally dubious and dangerous mission to the audience are pretty strained and lead to the irreconcilable actions from characters. The military thrives on order and the chain-of-command, but with nearly no military intelligence behind the decision these two guys are just going to bomb a city in the middle of the night. Cole and Cool Hand’s mission is successful, but they get court martialed anyway… only to be exonerated when North Vietnam leaves the peace talks due to their callous actions. So to be clear, the exact thing happened when they attacked Hanoi that the military feared (North Vietnam left the peace talks), but since there are no more peace talks there’s no more reason to be mad about two pilots unilaterally bombing Hanoi? It’s like a reverse Catch-22. I guess it doesn’t make sense to court martial two people for doing something that the President ordered to happen the following day, although I’m like, 80% sure that’s not how the military works.
What’s even stranger is how they go into the court martial with Camparelli’s support, yet the following scene shows him screaming at them. This isn’t an isolated event though. Danny Glover’s character spends several scenes being the myopic authority figure who yells a lot but in other scenes he is incredibly empathetic to his subordinates. His characterization is so inconsistent that I wouldn’t be surprised if somehow a set of twins were given command of the same aircraft characters and the fighter pilots just keep on encountering a different brother in every other scene.
Now that there are no peace talks Nixon has the leeway (and anger) to order Operation Linebacker II, which was the United States’ final big offensive push before our withdrawal a mere two weeks later. Obviously, that’s not how it really happened, but the film just explains it away as “a cover-up” of the illegal Hanoi bombings. Either way, after Cole and Cool Hand are grounded for their non-court martial-able offense, Commander Camparelli joins Linebacker II only to be shot down almost immediately behind enemy lines. Since this is a movie, Cole and Cool Hand are sent to rescue him. And everyone’s rescued and everyone’s happy, despite the fact that is literally not how anyone felt at the end of the Vietnam War. Oh and Cole isn’t rescued. He dies. A lot like the way he did in Platoon. Spoiler alert.
Hey, look! It’s David Schwimmer!
To be honest, the cast of this movie is the only reason to watch it. Between a young Ving Rhames, a serviceable Rosanna Arquette, an oddly reserved Tom Sizemore, a bipolar Danny Glover, and the “Am I still doing Platoon?” attitude of Willem Dafoe, Flight of the Intruder is a veritable Who’s Who of actors not living up their full potential. That being said, it doesn’t make these artists any less interesting to watch, especially Dafoe. Brad Johnson is the only black sheep of the character actor cast. As if to completely refute the goofy charm of Tom Cruise in Top Gun, the filmmakers of Flight of the Intruder seemingly went out of their way to cast the “tofu” of meaty leading men.
It’s so hard not to compare this movie to Top Gun. While I don’t particularly love that film (sorry, it’s true), the one thing it has going for it is the most dynamic aerial shots in the history of cinema. Due to the fact that virtually all of the bombing missions are completed under cover of night, Flight of the Intruder does not have that visual punch. There isn’t a whole lot for a cinematographer to do up in the sky without any natural light. While it might be unfair to compare it to the exemplary work in Top Gun, what the audience finally does get is some fairly unconvincing effects. I even wanted to say there was some CGI, but the scenes are shot too darkly to say for sure. The aerial battles are more likely miniatures layered over some matte shots and/or some rotoscoped animation. All I know is that it looks fabricated.
That being said, there are a couple of gorgeous moments involving practical flying stunts and explosions (the bombing of Hanoi and the rescue of Camparelli), but for a movie about “bombers” the bombs themselves few and far between. It’s not like this dearth of fireballs is because the movie takes a hard stance against the violence of Vietnam… in fact it really tries to elicit a jingoistic reaction to rampant destruction of our enemies, similar to Milius’ surprisingly somber Red Dawn. Flight of the Intruder just isn’t believable enough to get any emotional response. Somehow, it ends up with a more “rah rah, let’s kill the faceless enemy” tone and approaches war with even less nuance than Top Gun. You think Willem Dafoe would have said, “Hey, I was already in a great movie called Platoon and this regressive stance on Vietnam just isn’t gonna fly with audiences.” And then he’d say, “Ha, get it? FLY with audiences? I crack myself up.” I hear Willem Dafoe’s a bit of a jokester.
Was It Worth Watching?
I mentioned it above, but I really don’t like Top Gun. While a very pretty film, the story comes to a halt by virtue of Maverick’s complete lack of a significant character arc. Even with that fact, nearly my whole experience with Flight of the Intruder was “I would rather be watching Top Gun right now.” No, Flight of the Intruder was not worth watching.
There’s a great (possibly apocryphal) story involving a line in the film where a Navy fighter pilot (a stand-in for a Top Gun character) and a Navy bomber pilot (one of our characters) get in a bar fight. The bomber mentions “fighter pilots make movies… bomber pilots make history.” According to both IMDb and Wikipedia, after the critical and box office failure of Flight of the Intruder a common refrain among Navy fighter pilots became “Well… fighter pilots make good movies.”
Now that’s pretty funny.
Zak has been an avid movie fan since his mom made him cover his eyes before the “icicle stabbing” when they rented Die Hard 2 in 2nd Grade. As a consolation, in 6th grade he got straight A’s so she gave him the entire Die Hard trilogy on VHS. The rest is history.
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All images courtesy of Paramount Pictures