'Flight of the Intruder': well-timed but shallow war film

January 18, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Flight of the Intruder'

Starring Brad Johnson, Danny Glover and

Willem Dafoe.

Directed by John Milius.

Released by Paramount.

Rated R.

... **

All he is saying, is give war a chance.

John Milius' "Flight of the Intruder" is meant to be a rousing exhortation to battle and a celebration of the warriors who wage it. Its propitious timing has to be pure coincidence, given the years involved in the preparation of a major motion picture, but it nevertheless gives voice to a post-Vietnam-era argument much in the air (literally) these days.

"Flight of the Intruder" proselytizes for untrammeled military practicality without contamination by the hated "politics" of weenie civilian bureaucrats. It chronicles the adventures of a couple of naval aviators -- pilot and bombardier-navigator -- of a nifty little jet bomber called the A-6 Intruder who, in 1972, get sick and tired of obeying the rules. On their own, they go downtown, where the lights are gay. Downtown Hanoi, that is. SAM city.

As an epic of aviation, "Flight of the Intruder" is first-class, re-creating in utterly gut-wrenching detail the missions of some extremely brave young men in their flying machines. The Navy, ** of course, pitched in with aircraft carriers, Intruders, Skyraiders, enough hardware to get halfway down the road to Baghdad. And special effects wizards have contributed the rest, glossy, frightening mock-ups of night combat at supersonic speeds, with a sleet of tracers floating up to smash the planes, and now and them like some terrifying serpent, a SAM (surface-to-air missile) rising on the horizon.

But as a movie, "Flight of the Intruder" is basically junk.

This is not a political judgment. It doesn't matter where Milius fits on the spectrum and it doesn't mean that only properly anti-war liberals have a right to a voice and an audience. Moreover, it doesn't follow that a pro-military, patriotic battle film has to be bad, as John Ford proved over and over, most memorably with "They Were Expendable," in 1946.

"Flight of the Intruder" is junk because it trivializes combat heroism by making it seem so insincere. It's a clot of phony nobility, movie-derived cliche and aw-shucks shallowness.

Brad Johnson, who in fact looks a little like the young John Wayne, plays Jake "Cool Hand" Grafton, an A-6 driver who, late in his tour, has become embittered by the political constraints which mandate that he drop his bombs on second-echelon targets -- trees, mainly -- to spare Hanoi and thereby (or so the Kissinger theory goes) escalate the peace negotiations. When Jake's navigator is killed on one such completely pointless job, a little thing in his head goes haywire, and he begins to dream of dropping his payload where the targets are meaningful -- a park in Hanoi where the deadly surface-to-air missiles are stored before deployment to other sites for action.

When his new navigator-bombardier turns out to be a 110-percent macho warrior played by Willem Dafoe -- "I like to fight," he says, grinning like a monkey who's just found a free banana -- the two men begin to calculate apostasy: a mission up north.

It doesn't help that all these characters seem to have no inner lives, no backgrounds, no details of existence and that their emotional states have to be described in words beginning with capital letters. It helps even less that Milius resorts to flabby retreads of World War II high-jinx between missions.

Almost as pathetic is a slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am relationship between the noble Johnson and Rosanna Arquette, an aviator's widow who's now a Grief Lady for the Navy. These two exchange insipid patter that would have seemed outmoded in 1942, hop into the sack, and then commence to write trite letters to each other. Make war, not love, you find yourself thinking.

But the movie surprisingly fumbles at the one area where Milius is supposedly so strong, the climactic action sequence. This is an orchestration of downed pilots, rescue choppers, enemy infantry and air support planes. It features one extraordinary moment, when two stunt fliers in Skyraiders (prop-driven air support planes very like World War II Thunderbolts) come wheeling in on a strafing run on the horizontal about seven feet off the ground. But the larger sequence itself doesn't work, particularly as the same elements have been marshaled before, and better, in "The Bridges at Toko-Ri," and in the more recent "BAT-21."

Milius' version pulls out all the stops -- heroic self-sacrifice, great flying, napalm, hundreds of VC, half of naval aviation -- yet it's spread-out and silly. It doesn't sum up; it slops all over the place, like the movie itself.

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