“Rules of engagement: one, whoever sees the other person first is the winner; two, whoever gets seen first is toast.”
Justin’s rating: Flying out of a sunset and into my heart
Justin’s review: I can’t say that I ever recalled Fire Birds being a thing in the early ’90s, but I’m happy to check it out now. Attack helicopters with Nic Cage, Sean Young, and Tommy Lee jones? That’s a good evening right there even it ends up being the lousiest flick ever made.
Clearly, Fire Birds was gunning — pardon the pun — for a slice of that Top Gun formula that married hotshot pilots and fearsome military tech (and a bar party scene). Here, it’s Nic Cage and company who are learning how to use their Apache attack helicopters in air-to-air combat so that they can win the war on drugs and shoot down a cartel leader who’s also an ace helicopter fighter. Seriously, that’s the plot of this movie (it was 1990, after all). It’s a literal war on drugs with helicopters.
The true joy of Fire Birds is the presence of Tommy Lee Jones as a combat instructor brought in to teach the pilots how to take their flying abilities to the next level. He spends the movie gleefully spitting out colorful metaphors and extoling the virtues of the Apache. Unlike most gruff-and-grumpy military instructors that you see in similar flicks, his character is downright thrilled to be in the seat of the action. It’s an important difference that makes him entertaining to be around for an hour-and-a-half.
While the threat of the drug cartel remaining as far in the backseat as is possible without going into the trunk, Fire Birds lacks a driving conflict. In other words, we don’t really care about why they’re training so hard or worried that they need to become the best of the best. It’s a boot camp flick with a fight at the end, but nothing more.
To pad things out a bit, Cage tries to woo his old flame (Sean Young), a fellow pilot who only exists here to resist him a bit and then give in. Also, there are a couple of Phil Collins songs, a problem with Cage’s eyesight, and so, so many shots of helicopters. Some of the flight sequences are even bordering on good, at least whenever the actors take a break from all of their clever quips actually go on attack.
Fire Birds was a huge bomb at release, and I’m not going to argue strongly that the end result was undeserved. It’s OK, but barely that. What might have made for a much better movie would’ve been a focus on Jones’ struggle to transition from pilot into the instructor role due to his age. I really liked one shot where he’s jogging around the base and all of these younger guys easily cruise past him.
Or what about focusing on Sean Young as a female pilot battling against sexism and Nic Cage’s creepiness to grab the respect she deserves? Nah, let’s just listen to every single character in this movie telling us how our cocky hero is the best pilot they’ve ever seen.
That said, this movie is entertaining in all of the best ways. Whether it be Tommy Lee Jones blowing out candles on the blades of a helicopter birthday cake, an entire training mission that is a nonstop string of double entendres, or Nic Cage shouting over and over “I AM THE GREATEST!” in a combat simulator, this is the very definition of “dumb fun.” And you are dire need of some dumb fun, my friend.
- Nothing like starting a movie with a whole lot of spoken exposition
- “Somebody called it a flying race car with guns!”
- “Sir?” “Yeah?” “That was TOTALLY COOL.”
- The helicopter birthday cake
- Strawberry gum is “delicious”
- “Listen up, gun bunnies!”
- About time we had a boxing scene! That’s critical for a helicopter movie!
- Baby feeding cam
- “He’s got PANTIES on his HEAD!”