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From the Mists of Time: “Fire Birds”

September 14, 2015

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Believe it or not, there was a time when we, the movie going public, did not yet realize that Nicolas Cage was nuts. Nope, it’s true. Hindsight being 20/20, the signs were there—I give you Zandalee—but 25 years ago, most of us were perfectly willing to accept Nic Cage as a hotshot gunship pilot. Well, movie studios were willing to believe that we were willing to accept Nicolas Cage as a hotshot gunship pilot. Look, it was a different time. The Internet hadn’t been invented yet–we had to take our entertainment where it came. 

Fire Birds takes us back to the heady days of 1990, the period after the Cold War when the United States military turned its attention to the South American drug cartels. As you can see from movies like Clear and Present Danger or License to Kill or the invasion of Panama, we were genuinely worried that drug cartels were going to invade the US and force us all to do blow (thankfully, we got over that…oh, wait…)

In the '90s the cartels would just launch the cocaine into your system.

In the ’90s the cartels would just launch the cocaine into your system.

1990 was also a solid four years after Top Gun, which is apparently the amount of time it took some brilliant movie exec to decide “Hey, we can rip that off…we’ll just use helicopters so we won’t get sued.” And then he did however much coke it takes to convince yourself that Nicolas Cage is as much of a sex symbol as Tom Cruise (approximately enough to kill a sperm whale). And that’s how we got Fire Birds.

So, yeah, easiest movie synopsis ever: Fire Birds=Top Gun, Nicolas Cage=Tom Cruise, Sean Young=Kelly McGillis, Tommy Lee Jones=Tom Skerritt, and AH-64 Apache Helicopters=F-14A Fighter Jets. Yep, that’s basically it. Just like Top Gun, Cage plays a hotshot helicopter pilot who undergoes specialized training to be even better (might one say the best of the best?). In the case of Fire Birds it’s to fly the Apache gunship against the Latin American drug cartels (because when we go too long between invasions, the US military gets weird ideas).

Top Gun never had a scene like this, either.

Top Gun never had a scene like this, either.

Mentoring Cage’s Jake Preston is Tommy Lee Jones’s weathered veteran Brad Little. Jones really makes the most of his role, playing up the ornery decency that helped him break out in The Fugitive a few years later, and he makes the movie go down easier.

Preston’s love interest is fellow pilot Billie Lee Guthrie (Sean Young), and their scenes together grind the film to a halt. Actually they’re much, much worse than that. If in 1990 we didn’t yet know Cage was nuts, we were starting to get an inkling that Sean Young was. Most of her dialogue seems to have been ADRed between spa visits for all the energy she puts into her line readings. Putting two complete lunatics like Cage (who bought not one, but two castles) and Young (who allegedly superglued James Woods penis to his leg) together should result in some kind of sparks onscreen, but alas, their scenes make the love scenes in the Star Wars prequels look like 9 1/2 Weeks.

The sheer amount of combined craziness here could change the rotation of the Earth

The sheer amount of combined craziness here could change the rotation of the Earth

It doesn’t help matters that the screenwriters’ idea of sexy banter is to have Billie give pounds of techno-exposition during a mission while Preston makes sleazy double entendres, and sometimes single-entendres. For example:

“Okay, Preston, just stay on my tail.”

“You know I could watch your tail all day.”

“Very funny. When we hit the ridge take an overwatch position while I move into the canyon.”

“You always did like me on top.”

“Ha ha. But look, I’ll be feeding images directly into your targeting computer.”

“I wanna butt-fuck you.”

And it goes on like that.    

Which leaves us with the helicopters, and, uh, here’s the thing: helicopters are just not as shit-hot sexy as fighter jets. I don’t care how many magic-hour shots you have of Apaches flying out of the sunset, they’re still squat and lumbering. If fighter jets are like super-charged birds, soaring into endless blue atmosphere, military helicopters are like cave trolls. Like, if they were people they’d chew a lot of tobacco and watch Fox News.

“I wanna see the real birth certificate!”

It doesn’t help that the flight scenes are put together really poorly and look as if they’re just random footage of Apaches in flight spliced together with no sense of continuity or spatial understanding. Trying to figure out what’s going on during any given aerial sequence is pretty much impossible. Lord knows the director seems to have given up trying, as evidenced by the scene in which a pilot’s exclamation “That was an amazing move!” is inserted over a shot where an Apache just hovers and tilts its nose.

What the aerial sequences accomplish, however, is telling you more about the AH-64 Apache gunship than you ever wanted to know. As a matter of fact, by the second info dump about the Apache’s combat capabilities, I was pretty sure that this whole movie was the most expensive promotional video ever for Boeing Aircraft (Exhibit A: the film’s alternate title is Wings of the Apache). Like, once footage of the Berlin Wall going down hit the airwaves, someone at Boeing thought Oh shit, how are we going to convince the Army to buy more of our overpriced, overbuilt moneysponges? I got two kids to put through college. Fucking Gorbechev…

“Do not hurt the helicopters! That’s my summer home in the Poconos bonus right there!”

And to that end, the filmmakers tried to make drug cartels as threatening as the Soviet war machine. It’s an uphill fight, but in this movie they not only have a couple of Saab Draken fighter jets (because that’s the most helpful thing to have if you’re a drug trafficker), they’ve also employed an Eastern European mercenary whose weapon of choice happens to be an attack helicopter because Nicolas Cage has to shoot down something at the climax. In that, Fire Birds exists in the same universe as Airwolf, where the bad guys always have at least one missile-equipped helicopter on the payroll. Whether they’re terrorists, drug dealers, counterfeiters or card sharks, they’ve always got air support.

Why is the Hughes 500 always the go-to air superiority fighter in these movies?

Why is the Hughes 500 always the go-to air superiority fighter in these movies?

So, it all comes down to an almost-perfunctory dogfight with the cartel, and—give the movie this—it’s a good sequence. The editing is quick and intense, and they give you enough of a sense of where the helicopters are in relation to one another that the climax actually works. But, Jesus fuck, it is a long wait before you get there.

Thankfully, we have Cage being crazy all over the place to keep us interested. Cage shouldn’t be anyone’s first choice as a hotshot Army pilot, and the sight of him in uniform (and sporting an impressive, blow-dried plate of hair) never ceases to be jarring. It’s like seeing a narwhal in a dinner jacket—there’s no real reason why it shouldn’t be, but goddamn it looks strange.

You have no idea what you're unleashing.

You have no idea what you’re unleashing.

Cage, for his part, seems to have lost interest in the project about five pages into the screenplay and just cut loose with his natural craziness. Whether he’s driving around in a jeep with panties wrapped around his head or breaking into an impromptu Mohammad Ali impression (“I am the greatest!”), he seems dedicated to not playing this shit straight. Fortunately, the abundance of cockpit shots means he played many of his scenes alone on a sound stage, which gave him free reign to let his basic lunacy frolic like a greyhound on PCP.

In the end, though, Fire Birds is a deeply sad movie. It all but breaks into a flop sweat trying to convince us that Army helicopters are as sexy as fighter jets and that drug cartels are next great enemy of democracy, and that Apaches are the greatest weapon in the US military’s vast arsenal. It hopes that if it chants “USA! USA!” enough we won’t notice that this movie is just a wan, low-budget rip off of a better, more classic film with a patently ludicrous plot and two insane people as the romantic leads.

Fire Birds just goes to show that even mindless jingoism has its limits. And its limits are Nicolas Cage. Really, I could have told them that.

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