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Air America is a 1990 film starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. as Air America pilots, during the Vietnam War, flying missions in Laosmarker. 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 Laosmarker and other areas of Indochina subsequent to the North Vietnamese invasion of Laos. The Hollywoodmarker screenplay differs greatly with its anti-war political spin, focus on the opium trade, and a pejorative portrayal (played by actor Burt Kwouk as "General Lu Soong") of Royal Laotian General Vang Pao.



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 Thailandmarker, Londonmarker, and Los Angelesmarker; 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.


In late 1969, Billy Covington (Downey) works as a helicopter traffic pilot for a Los Angeles radio station, and is fired after breaking FAA regulations. His piloting skills, bravery and disregard for the law are noticed by a mysterious stranger, whooffers him a job in Laos working for a "strictly civilian" company called Air America; insisting "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. Upon arrival, he is partnered with veteran pilot Gene Ryack (Gibson). By the end of his first day, he learns that Gene is also an arms merchant who uses official flights to buy black-market weapons for his private cache.

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 heroin 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, although more effort is placed to salvage the opium, leaving Billy and Jack in hostile territory. Gene risks his life to pick him out, but he crashes with Billy in the helicopter; now they are stranded in the jungles of Laos when they are captured by a rural tribe. Gene lets his business instincts shine through when he notices they are using obsolete and unreliable guns, managing to convince the tribe to spare their lives in exchange for better weapons. Billy decides to quit Air America, but he wants to get even with General Soong for betraying him when he crashed.

Senator Davenport is becoming upset when he is not being shown the operations of Air America, and he demands to know who issmuggling heroin. Soon after returning to Air America the pilots are informed that Jack was found dead, leading to the further dissociation of Billy. Later that same day, 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. Billy is making a flight before he actually quits, and he is promptly called to land at an airstrip for "routine inspection", a non-routine situation. Expecting a trap, he searches his cargo to find several kilos of heroin hidden in flour sacks, and a large armed force waiting for him at the airstrip. 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. Billy crashes his small plane on the same airstrip he crashed a few days earlier and hides in the wreckage.

Gene rescues Billy, yet again, from the abandoned airstrip. However, as he's picking up the last of his weapons, he receives a distress call from a refugee camp. Corinne, the USAID patron of the refugees, explains their dire situation and appeals for Gene's cargo space. Dozens of refugees are in mortal danger from being caught in the crossfire of two opposing armies, and they are the only plane in range which can evacuate them in time. Gene and Billy decides to rescue the refugees and dump his cargo using the explosion of his weapons cache to cover their escape.


Rob Diehl: Hey Gene, You will remember what I said?... Shhhh!

Gene Ryack: Well the problem is Rob, you and I weren't here, this conversation never happened, so I cant remember what the f!@* you didn't tell me!
Rob Diehl: You know more about it than American intelligence Gene!

Gene Ryack: Rob, I wish you wouldn't use the words American Intelligence to describe what it is you do!
Gene Ryack: Here at Air America, what's considered psychotic behavior anywhere else is company policy.
Major Lemond: Remember Gene, keep things with the senator on a need to know basis.

Gene Ryack: Oh you mean treat him like a mushroom. Keep him in the dark and feed him on shit.



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

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