Robert Downey Jr’s Air America Is The Dark Flipside To Top Gun

In both tone and content, the Robert Downey Jr/Mel Gibson action comedy Air America feels like a dark flipside to Top Gun. In addition to cementing Tom Cruise’s leading man status, the original Top Gun was a hit blockbuster that evolved into a beloved movie in its later years. Its catchphrases, visuals and the relationships between Cruise’s “Maverick” and his fellow pilots and love interest make it endlessly rewatchable.

Fans of the character were certainly kept waiting, as it took Cruise over three decades to return for Top Gun: Maverick. This proved well worth the long wait, with the 2022 sequel not only receiving critical acclaim but grossing over $1.4 billion at the box office. The success of Top Gun in 1986 also inspired some imitators, including the strange Nic Cage action movie Fire Birds and the Top Gun spoof Hot Shots!, starring Charlie Sheen.


An altogether darker take on the subgenre came in the form of 1990’s Air America. This adapted a non-fiction book that explored the airline of the same name that was based in Indochina and was secretly run by the CIA. The movie cast Robert Downey Jr as a pilot named Billy who is recruited by Air America to run dangerous missions in Laos, while being shown the ropes by Mel Gibson’s gun-running pilot Gene. The pilots of Air America man everything from cargo planes to helicopters and are self-described adrenaline addicts who enjoy the rush that flying over hostile terrority brings.

Air America Is The Anti-War Top Gun

Whereas the Top Gun pilots may enjoy showing off in their high-tech jets, at the end of the day, they feel like they’re fighting for a bigger cause. In Air America, the CIA has gathered a group of misfits who can’t get hired elsewhere for life-threatening jobs that involved flying narcotics for corrupt Laotian forces. The pilots also pull stunts like tying an unconscious Billy to a rope suspended from a helicopter – an impressive stunt Downey Jr performed himself – and flying him through a city. Air America was produced before the advent of CGI too, so its many airplane and helicopter stunts were pulled off in camera.

Unfortunately, an issue with Air America is that it’s not sure what it wants to be. The posters sell it as a wacky buddy comedy between Gibson and Downey Jr – who made a LOT from Endgame – but its lighthearted treatment of a real-life CIA drug-smuggling operation clashes with this goal. Its distortion of facts also led to some controversy during its release. If Air America was aiming for a tone like 1970’s M*A*S*H it should have been much darker and cynical, and unlike Top Gun, it doesn’t feature enough setpieces to qualify as an action movie either. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country For Old Men, Skyfall) also had such a terrible time making Air America that he nearly quit the business, while the film itself was a critical and financial disappointment.

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