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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Flight of the Intruder’ Takes to the Air at the Right Time

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Originally set for release last spring, John Milius’ Vietnam saga “Flight of the Intruder” has, by chance, been released into a climate of war. It’s mediocre, but it comes at a time when audiences may be in the mood to see even a sub-par film about American bomber and fighter pilots braving the odds and strutting their codes of honor.

As a movie-movie antidote to the harrowing nightly news, “Flight of the Intruder” (selected theaters) may have found its commercial salvation.

It certainly won’t find salvation in its mundane script, direction, performances. It’s about U.S. Navy Lt. Jake (Cool Hand) Grafton (Brad Johnson), who pilots an A-6 Intruder, a low-altitude bomber, over enemy airspace in North Vietnam. The strategic targets for which he risks his life are mostly unpopulated forests, abandoned huts. He longs for a real mission and, after his bombardier buddy is killed, he becomes fixated on an unauthorized maneuver--a bombing raid on a missile depot in downtown Hanoi. His fixation takes flight when a new bombardier, Lt. Comdr. Virgil Cole (Willem Dafoe), joins the squadron.

Virgil is on his third tour, and he’s dangerously gung-ho. Arriving for duty, he pauses for a moment to whiff the aroma of combat. Virgil is one small step away from the I-love-the-smell-of-napalm-in-the-morning breed of soldier, but his manias are presented as screw-loose heroism. He’s a perfect contrast to Jake’s strong silent dullness.

Milius, working from a script by Robert Dillon and David Shaber based on the Stephen Coonts bestseller, tries for a John Ford effect. But the Ford war film that this movie draws on, “They Were Expendable,” was considerably darker and more complex than this straight-arrow tub-thumper. Milius has an expansive temperament but it’s expansive here in ways that seem emotionally fraudulent. Hollywood, and not Vietnam, is this film’s real point of reference.

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Milius attempts to recapture our feelings for the rousingly patriotic war movies of 50 years ago, but the kind of traditional, true-blue sentiments he’s parading seem out of place in this Vietnam setting. That war, and our feelings about it, are far more complicated than this film allows for. Its banalities don’t do justice to the war or the Americans who served in it.

The aerial combat sequences aren’t stirring enough to cancel out the cliches. Besides, the technical standard for such scenes has become almost impossibly high and, by “Top Gun” standards, “Flight of the Intruder” (rated PG-13 for explosions and fisticuffs) is pretty cheesy.

Worse, the movie has Brad Johnson, who was so unforgettably forgettable as the aviator in “Always,” at its center. Johnson seems to be playing John Wayne to Milius’ John Ford, and he’s wiped off the screen every time Dafoe shows up. Dafoe may have worn out his welcome playing ravaged warriors, but he still holds the screen whenever he sports his gargoyle grin. And Danny Glover, as the squadron’s commander, gives rich, deep-throated readings to his lines. If only his lines, like the film he figures in, weren’t so aggressively musty.

‘Flight of the Intruder’

Brad Johnson: Jake Grafton

Willem Dafoe: Virgil Cole

Rosanna Arquette: Callie

Danny Glover: Frank Camparelli

A Mace Neufeld and Robert Rehme production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director John Milius. Producer Mace Neufeld. Executive producer Brian Frankish. Co-executive producer Ralph Winter. Screenplay by Robert Dillon and David Shaber based on the novel by Stephen Coonts. Cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp. Editor C. Timothy O’ Meara. Music Basil Poledaris. Production design Jack T. Collis. Sound mixer Jack Solomon. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG-13 (contains bombings and punch-outs).


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