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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Fire Birds’ Aiming to Be ‘Top Gun’ With Helicopters

Lean, mean, clean and empty-hearted, “Fire Birds” (citywide) is a video-game recruiting poster with a bomb ticking inside--a bomb that never goes off.

Nicolas Cage and Tommy Lee Jones--two off-the-edge actors trapped in a world of spiffy impersonal technology--offer chances for a dramatic explosion. But around them is a world that might have been dreamed up by a teen-age Dr. Strangelove: a realm of clanging, metallic corridors and open skies, of shiny militarism, state-of-the-art hardware, salty old cliches--even what seems to be the hundredth reincarnation of the Red Baron--dredged up perfunctorily from every “rite of passage” war movie since “Wings.” (“Wings” was better.)

The people who made this movie probably wouldn’t be insulted if you told them they were trying a blatant “Top Gun” knock-off. They might smile and say anxiously: “Yeah! yeah! Did we make it?”

“Fire Birds’ ” raison d’etre seems to be to show off state-of-the-art military hardware--notably the Army’s AH-64A attack helicopter, the Apache, armed, according to the press book, with “19 laser-guided hellfire missiles, rockets and a 30-millimeter chaingun.” There’s a certain elemental excitement to the movie, mostly in the last 20 minutes, but it’s so slick and vacuous that watching it is like dropping down an aluminum slide.

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The Apaches, clearly the stars of the film, are posed hovering against scarlet or yellow skies in a veil of heat shimmer, ready to blast enemy copters out of the air. Meanwhile, on the ground, three story men--including “Platoon” adviser Dale Dye and two more scenarists working independently--have churned up the old plot about the sexy, rebellious, crack pilot, his sexy, rebellious girlfriend and the thorny old pro who rides the hero and feels he’s losing it. Way out there in South America a band of omnipotent drug czars referred to mostly as “The Cartel"--to avoid lawsuits from Medellin?--wait to shoot up the place.

The movie is so shameless, it starts out with a quotation from George Bush. After this presidential benediction, we’re swooped into the skies over Latin America, where dazzled Army pilots run into the terrorist ace, Stoller. Soon, we’re back in those shadowy, metallic Army corridors--a real nightmare warren--with generals shuffling papers and musing over videos. Then we’re out on the training field, where hero Jake Preston (Cage) tackles two chores: getting back his old girlfriend (Sean Young) and conquering an eye-dominance problem with the help of a cardboard periscope and a pair of red panties tied to his head. Young, as Billie Lee Guthrie, is a pilot too; she drives the scout helicopter. Does this make her Tonto to Cage’s Lone Ranger?

As Jake, Cage begins the role rather straight and then gooses it up by creating a sort of Establishment psychopath, glowering and radiating cocky menace. It’s not a bad strategy. Tommy Lee Jones, handed enough corny lines for a half-season of X-rated “Hee Haw,” plays his role, Brad, as a tough old cornball--which works for him, but leaves the rest of the cast stranded with lines like “Listen up, gun bunnies; this is straight from the Buzz Man,” and no character flaws to explain them.

Tough heroines who fly and fight seem to be de rigueur for these movies, but the movie’s feminism has gaps. At the end, unless I went temporarily deaf--always a possibility, considering the bang-bang, dogfight climax--I thought I heard Tommy Lee Jones, pinned down in the rubble of his smashed copter, tutoring Sean Young in the assemblage of a heat-seeking missile launcher by telling her to put the part that looked like a coffee can next to the part that looked like a rolling pin.

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In moments like this, director David Green, whose last film was the fairly sly heist comedy “Buster,” seems to have turned into a total “Top Gun” bunny: a dire fate even in a gonzo, rock ‘n’ roll recruiting poster movie like “Fire Birds” (rated PG-13 for violence and sexual innuendo).

‘FIRE BIRDS’

A Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Nova International Films release. Producer William Badalato. Director David Green. Script Nick Thiel, Paul E. Edwards. Executive producers Arnold Kopelson, Keith Barish. Camera Tony Imi. Production design Joseph T. Garrity. Editors Jon Poll, Norman Buckley. Music David Newman. Co-producers John K. Swensson, Dale Dye. With Nicolas Cage, Tommy Lee Jones, Sean Young, Bryan Kestner, Dale Dye, Mary Ellen Trainor.

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

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MPAA rating: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13).


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