Nicolas Cage vs His Monocle in FIRE BIRDS (1990)

Cage is joined by Tommy Lee Jones and Sean Young as Apache chopper pilots in this bland action thriller

Taking action on a Bush-era initiative to wage a war on drugs, a task force of the nation’s top helicopter pilots is formed to take the fight to the cartels. Tommy Lee Jones plays a top veteran pilot who heads up the training of the new blood, which include characters played Nicolas Cage and Sean Young.

Cage is the primary protagonist here, a cocky hotshot who seems unstoppable in the cockpit— until he discovers that his left-eye dominance prevents him from using his tactical monocle effectively, failing him in placement despite his perfect marks in every other respect.

This feels like it’s meant to be the story’s primary challenge, but it feels like merely a speed bump — Cage asks Jones for help, Jones grumpily obliges, and with a little extra practice they succeed. (I did read up a little about this concept; from what I’ve gathered it seems this is not only a real issue for Apache pilots, but a common one that’s not nearly as unique as the film’s script would have us believe).

Unfortunately I could never shrug off a sense of detachment from the movie. As much as I was absolutely down for a military action thriller with this fine cast, I just found it to be a lackluster and forgettable 90s action movie that feels both dated and dull, not helped in the least by a bland score and dopey protagonist only occasionally breaking from a constant monotone to yell manically.

Cage’s young cocky hotshot character is probably supposed to play with a roguish charm akin to Han Solo, but he never experiences any meaningful growth, nor rises above being a smarmy narcissist. In one sequence, he aces his way through a flight simulator while repeatedly shouting “I am the greatest!”, escalating into a full-on verbal orgy of screaming self-love, which is the most on-brand mega-acting moment and, depending on what you’re looking for from this movie, perhaps its greatest or most groan-inducing moment.

Similarly, his dogged romantic pursuit of Sean Young’s female pilot (and ex-girlfriend) hews much closer to bullying than flirting, and he just never turns the page to becoming someone I’d actually want to root for.

And Young unfortunately doesn’t fare much better. She’s another tough pilot, smart and charming. Much of her conflict with Cage revolves around his inability to accept her as an able soldier and more than just a love interest, which all seems pretty solid for a female lead, except that that’s still what ironically what she ends up feeling like for the purposes of the movie.

Tommy Lee Jones makes out the best by far as the flight instructor tasked with training up the next generation. “Military veteran” is assuredly a familiar sort of role for Jones, but he handles it with sensitivity and nuance — a family man who is finding himself being aged out of combat, adjusting to changes and unsure of his place in this man’s army.

The one thing that the film does really well is the aerial dogfighting that makes up the climax. This sequence features some incredible stunt work, cinematography, and flight choreography, but it’s too little, too late. An allusion to the cartel war opens the film but then takes a backseat for the duration, a distant conflict with no sense of importance or urgency while the pilots do their training drama. (Admittedly similar patterns are true in other military films like Full Metal Jacket, Hacksaw Ridge, and All Quiet on the Western Front, but those are all more intriguing takes on both training and combat).

To offer a dissenting opinion, it’s worth mentioning that Cinapse Editor-in-Chief Ed Travis enjoyed this movie and was the one who recommended it to me. We usually have similar taste, but in this case I didn’t agree. It’s a pass from me, but Nic Cage lovers might still do well to check it out.

The Package

Fire Birds released on Blu-ray this week on Kino Lorber’s Studio Classics line. (A previous edition, now out-of-print, was released by Mill Creek in 2015).

The Blu-ray release is is fittingly unremarkable — a pretty typical package with a standard blue case and minimal features. It looks and sounds fine for what it is, occasionally impressing with some neat aerial combat photography or a close-up on Tommy Lee Jones’ craggy visage.

Special Features and Extras

  • Audio Commentary by director David Green
  • Theatrical Trailer (2:29)
  • Promotional Trailers
    Trailers for other KL Studio Classics titles Blown Away (1:35), One Good Cop (2:09), The Package (2:19), and The Park is Mine (2:08)

The Verdict

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:

Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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