The year is 1969. After buzzing a semi-driver, radio eye-in-the-sky Billy Covington (Downey) gets stripped of his pilots license. No sooner does this happen than he gets a job offer from Air America, a covert airlift organization operating out of Laos. Once there, he finds the company full of lunatics, with perhaps the looniest being Gene Ryack (Gibson), a self-proclaimed Buddhist who runs guns on the side. He also finds out the organization is secretly a drug-smuggling operation, run by Major Lemond (Ken Jenkins) and General Soong (Burt Kwouk).
Not to be confused with Air America Radio.
- Actually, That's My Assistant: Senator Davenport mistakes General Soong in his Bling of War for a bellhop.
- Agony of the Feet: Gene relates a story about getting his toe shot off through the cockpit floor. He now keeps it in a jar around his neck.
- Anachronism Stew: Not too bad, but some of the songs on the soundtrack actually came out after 1969.
- The Bad Guys Win: In the end, Lemond and Soong get to continue smuggling drugs.
- Big Damn Heroes: Gene, Billy, and Babo come to rescue Corrine from Soong's troops. When they find out a number of villagers also need saving, Gene dumps his whole stash of weapons(that he was planning to sell for his retirement) to make room for them and then blows the weapons up so Soong's men can't use them.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: All the pilots are total loons, but still amazing pilots.
- Cool Plane: Averted and played straight at the same time. Averted in that none of the planes or helicopters are even remotely sleek or cool looking, played straight in that those aircraft (especially the C-123 Provider) are extremely good at what they're used for and can take a lot of punishment before going down.
- Danger Deadpan: The pilots are also surprisingly calm, even when being shot at.
- Deadpan Snarker: A few, particularly Gene.
- Death Seeker: Gene seems to have shades of this.
- Did Not Think This Through: After Jack dies while searching for Gene and Billy, Billy buys some grenades on the black market to destroy the drug lab in revenge. Gene thinks that it's not "well-planned fun" and warns him not to do it. He does it anyway. All Billy ends up doing is knocking out the lab for three hours and getting everyone in the surrounding area stoned with production resuming that morning. Worse, Soong knows exactly who's responsible as the guards saw him. So, Lemond decides to use him as a scapegoat for Davenport. It almost works. If it weren't for Babo saying that there is no "routine inspection", they would've been killed.
- Due to the Dead: After Jack dies, Gene fulfills his promise to not have his friend sent home in a body bag and has a coffin hand-made for him. He also tells the Senator that he wasn't hauling dope the night he was shot down.
- Erudite Stoner: Babo.Hey, man, I'm 42 years old, I've never figured anything out in my life!
- Everything Trying to Kill You: See page quote.
- Exact Words: After Rob's "We're not here" admonition following the death of one of his friends in a plane crash, Ryack replies, "Yeah, but if we're not here, then this conversation did not take place. And I can't remember what the fuck you didn't tell me!"
- Funny Background Event: In one scene at a restaurant, two Laotian lounge singers are singing America's "Horse With No Name". In Engrish. And off-key.
- Gallows Humor: Given the circumstances...Rob: Is he dead?
Gene: Well, Rob, if he's not dead, he's very, very calm.
- Granola Girl: Corrine, the Peace Corps volunteer who's totally savvy to Lemond and Soong's activities.
- Gray-and-Grey Morality: There are definitely good guys and bad guys, but none of the good guys are pure white-hats, not even Billy and Corinne, who probably come closest, and none of the villains are pure black-hats, not even Major Lemond and General Soong. Yes, granted, Soong, Lemond, and Rob are drug runners, but there is no evidence that Lemond and Diehl are enriching themselves, and even Gene, who is more or less neutral for most of the film, points out that it is impossible to win a war in Southeast Asia without controlling the opiate trade, so Lemond and Diehl, and even Soong, are just doing what is necessary for the war effort. Ryack himself is a gun runner, and it is made clear that pretty much all the pilots are running illegal scams on the side. Corinne, again, might seem closest to being a pure white-hat, but she's dating Rob, one of the villains. Senator Davenport turns out to be a good guy at the end, but he's willing to look the other way at Gen. Soong's rather dodgy "recruitment" techniques. So all in all, no one in the film really seems all good or all evil.
- Holiday in Cambodia: Pretty much the plot.
- Improbable Aiming Skills: At the beginning, a farmer shoots down a plane with a casual potshot.
- Minion with an F in Evil: Rob Diehl.
- Never Trust a Trailer: The film was sold as a buddy movie when it's really an anti-war political thriller.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed:
- General Soong is based on Vang Pao, a CIA-allied Laotian Royal Army officer who later moved to America and became an important figure in the Hmong immigrant community. Incidentally, in 2007, 17 years after the film was released, Pao and several other Hmong leaders were arrested for attempting to overthrow the Laotian government.
- Major Lemond is based on Richard Secord, a high-ranking U.S. Air Force officer who oversaw the CIA secret war in Laos. Like his fictional counterpart, he was later involved in the Iran-Contra scandal.
- CIA Agent Robert Diehl is based on Jerry Daniels, who was the Agency's liaison to the Laotian Army.
- Senator Davenport is based on Stuart Symington, who was Senator of Missouri from 1953 to 1976.
- Percussive Therapy: After getting his pilot's license pulled, Billy kicks the shit out of a coffee table.
- Reckless Gun Usage: Jack Neely plays miniature golf by shooting another guy's ball.
- Retirony: Sort of; Jack Neely was working on his retirement, but in the back of his mind knew he was gonna meet "the golden BB" sooner or later.
- Refuge in Audacity: After crashing in the jungle, Billy and Ryack get captured by some extremely pissed-off Montagnards. Gene quickly hustles it into an arms deal to replace their ancient French flintlocks.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Jack Neely, one of the older pilots, is a bit weirder than the others, and zones out during a tense moment at one point.
- Sleazy Politician: Subverted by Senator Davenport. He tries to hit on Corinne at one point, but, at least as far as the big picture, he's as straight as an arrow.
- The Vietnam War
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film's broadly based on the true facts of the "Air America" operation, but is mostly fictionalized. In particular, how much Air America was involved in drug trafficking is hotly debated.
- What Does She See in Him?: Corrine is apparently dating Rob.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Billy lampshades it at one point:Gene: You know, Buddha said—
Billy: Will ya stop with the whole Buddha thing? I just don't believe a real Buddhist would be in the gun-running business[...]
Gene: I didn't say I was a good Buddhist...
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: A pretty funny one.