What if Top Gun was about helicopters instead of jets and paired Nicolas Cage with a sleepwalking Sean Young?
“I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I AM THE GREATEST!”
There are a number of things I love about doing this column every week, and they’re all variations of watching Nic Cage movies. My favorite variation is when I watch one of the handful of Cage movies I’ve missed over the years. There’s always a little extra excitement when I’m writing about something that is an entirely new experience for me. My new experience this week is Fire Birds.
Cage stars as Jake Preston, a young hot shot helicopter pilot for the US Army. Jake is part of a team of helicopter pilots that are teamed with the Drug Enforcement Administration in an effort to lead America’s war on drugs in a head-on fight with the South American cartels.
On his most recent mission, Jake sees some friends killed in action by an enemy chopper, largely due to the fact that their helicopters just can’t compete. The Army decides it’s time to upgrade to the new AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. Jake is quickly elected to be part of the team set to receive this new training from veteran pilot and flight instructor Brad Little (Tommy Lee Jones). Upon his arrival at training, Jake encounters his ex-girlfriend and fellow pilot Billie (Sean Young).
Going into Fire Birds, I was basically expecting a Top Gun ripoff, and that’s pretty much what it is. There are some differences in the details, but the premise is essentially the same, and it’s clearly obvious that Fire Birds is at least attempting to cash in on the success of Top Gun. There are a number of reason why Fire Birds isn’t as popular as Top Gun, but above all else it’s because of the simple fact that helicopters just aren’t as exciting as jets.
Within the film there are a number of great helicopter stunts, and they do look cool. The film is banking on these to be the big selling point. So yeah, they look cool but still lack excitement. Despite all the maneuvering these choppers do in the air, they just look kind of slow and clunky. There’s a reason that there are professional sports teams and gangs named after jets and none named after helicopters. Jets are rad, helicopters are meh.
Once we move beyond the helicopters and into the details we encounter more problems. When Little arrives on base to begin the training, it becomes pretty clear what trope we’re about to see between he and Jake. During Little’s introductory meeting, Jake just glares at him the whole time. Little is the grizzled veteran and Jake is the young pilot that reminds Little of a younger version of himself. The two are going to bump heads as Little rides Jake harder than the other trainees because he wants to push him to be the best, right? Well, not exactly.
Little and Jake seem to hit it off right away. Jake basically proclaims that he’s the best, and Little agrees. Jake even shows up at Little’s surprise 40th birthday party within the film’s first 20 minutes. So maybe the film is taking a slightly different approach by having these two become friends right away? Not quite, because about 40 minutes in, Jake gets mad and says Little is harder on him than the other recruits. But that’s not the case at all. Fire Birds drops the ball on a very basic trope.
Despite their relationship not playing out the way it obviously should, there is still a lot of enjoyment to be had with Jake and Little thanks to Cage and Jones. It’s fun to see these two icons bounce off one another, as they make a really good pair.
Then you have Jake and Billie and their relationship, and oh boy is it rough. When we first meet Billie, Jake talks about having heard of her, and she gives no indication that she knows anything about Jake. It plays out like the two are meeting for the first time and Jake is smitten with this famous pilot. Turns out they dated previously and Jake is now trying to win her back.
Everything between Jake and Billie is so weird. In one of their first scenes together, Jake shows up at the laundromat where Billie is washing her clothes. He grabs a pair of her panties that fell on the floor and sticks them in the belt loop on his jeans. When she goes to leave, he playful pulls them out and says, “You forgot something.” I guess this is a weird form of flirting? To me it felt more like creeper 101.
Moving beyond that creepy moment, there is zero chemistry between Cage and Young. I mean none whatsoever. It’s crazy bad. And I know bias towards Cage, but I think most would agree that a lot of the blame falls on Young. She’s sleepwalking through this thing with some of the laziest line readings you’ll ever witness. Cage is trying, but he’s got nothing to work with.
Check out this date/love scene set to Phil Collins and see for yourself how weird their relationship is. These two people should not be going on a date.
So Cage’s Jake has two major relationships in the film and they’re both poorly written. How does Cage handle it all? Pretty well! He seems to be having a lot of fun here despite the bad material. He was about 26 when he made this, so pretty young. But he already had a lot of success under his belt, so you can sense that he’s confident and willing to try anything. I bet the panties in the belt loop thing was a Cage original. Seems like a funky choice he would make.
Fire Birds doesn’t have any next level Cage freak outs but there are some quality moments. There are some little things, like his choice to chew strawberry bubble gum while flying. With most actors this would be nothing, but he does it in a very particular way that it’s so Cage-ian.
The highlight of the film is Cage in a flight simulator. Before he can actually get out and fly a real Apache helicopter, he has to pass the simulator. In this scene we see the gum thing I mentioned, but then we get to witness his ego taking over as he just starts shouting over and over, “I am the greatest! I am the greatest!” It’s incredible and you should watch it.
At this point, you’re probably thinking I hate Fire Birds and if you are, you’re wrong. I love this movie for reasons I do not understand. There’s something wonderfully mundane and bizarre about this movie that I can’t help but love it. It’s wildly problematic and a less exciting Top Gun, but there’s also something fascinating about its mere existence.
Fire Birds is one of those movies that you truly wonder how it got made. From the surface level it seems obvious, but once you dig into its weirdness it’s hard to understand how anyone signed off on this. At any rate, I’m glad whoever OK’d it did, because now I can watch it over and over again and maybe someday it’ll all finally come together and make sense. I doubt that very much, but that won’t stop me from enjoying this mess.