“Iron Eagle” is a Reagan-era teen fighter jet movie that snuck into theaters some five months before “Top Gun,” which might be its greatest achievement.
While director Sidney J. Furie’s fondly remembered airborne rescue flick has a cult following, it lacks the MTV aesthetic and gloss that director Tony Scott brought to “Top Gun.”
I won’t make a case that “Iron Eagle” is better than “Top Gun,” though Furie’s film is easily the more patriotic, to put it mildly. The 1986 film isn’t just so jingoistic that it makes “The Patriot” look like commie propaganda in comparison.
Much of it resembles, I kid you not, a live action version of “Team America: World Police” (2004).
Here is the cinematic equivalent of a leather jacket with an American flag on the back. Toby Keith’s Harley Davidson seat decor looks like this movie. You get the idea.
Jason Gedrick stars as Doug Masters, a high schooler living on a military base with his father, Colonel Masters (Tim Thomerson), a U.S. Air Force pilot. Doug’s dream of attending the Colorado Springs Air Force Academy are dashed, though it’s a wonder why, seeing how Doug clearly has The Right Stuff, though he’s every bit as undisciplined as Maverick ever was.
On the eve of his prom, Doug learns that his father has crash landed in enemy territory and is made hostage of the insidious Col. Akesh (David Suchet). Rather than allow diplomacy and military intervention to straighten things out, Doug turns to his father’s friend, Col. “Chappie” Sinclair (Louis Gossett, Jr.) and his goofy batch of high school buddies, to help him get his dad back.
This is a teen movie all right, complete with an in-air version of a “chicken race,” but with a post-“Rambo” confidence and sensibility. The straightforward approach Furie gives this is similar to John Badham’s helming of “WarGames” (1983).
Gedrick is much better in this and far more appealing than he was in “The Heavenly Kid” the year before. Without question, “Iron Eagle” is Gossett Jr.’s movie and he’s terrific in this. “Chappie” is the Mr. Miyagi-like father figure/mentor of the story and much of this rests on the give and take between Gedrick and Gossett Jr., whose history-making Oscar win for “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982) showcased the actor playing a similar character.
I wonder if Gossett Jr. regrets following up his Oscar-winning role so soon with popcorn fodder, like “Jaws 3-D,” “Enemy Mine” and this, as well as too many cheesy action movies later on, such as the early comic adaptation of “The Punisher” (the 1989 version that starred Dolph Lundgren).
With its references to “Ronnie Ray Gun” (if you need to Google that, it’s a President Reagan reference), “Mr. Peanut” (a Jimmy Carter nod) and let’s-kick-ass attitude, this plays like an airborne “Red Dawn.” This movie will chokehold you with its patriotism.
In addition to the four inevitable sequels (of which only the Furie-directed “Iron Eagle II” from 1989 is any good), there were also the wannabees, like the strikingly similar “The Rescue” (one of the few unreleased Disney films, likely due to its U.S. teens vs. the North Korean army plot) and “Toy Soldiers” (1991), which also starred Gossett Jr.
Rather than consider the sequels, one need only look at the true “Iron Eagle” film extension: the King Kobra music video from 1986, which is a riot (the MTV video even managed to rope in Gossett Jr.).
Before “Iron Eagle,” Furie directed prestigious works like the Michael Caine-starring “The Ipcress File” (1965) and the great Diana Ross/ Richard Pryor-led “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972). Clearly something happened after “Iron Eagle,” as he followed it with the likes of “Superman IV- The Quest for Peace” (1987), the Rodney Dangerfield soccer farce “Ladybugs” and Dangerfield’s “My Five Wives” (2000).
“Iron Eagle” is better than most Cannon movies, though it has enough explosions to fit the bill. Oddly enough, this is more dialog-driven than “Top Gun,” as there’s a long second act in which the rescue is carefully formulated and put in motion. The movie establishes where it’s going early on but takes it time getting there.
Gedrick and especially Gossett Jr. carry the second act, with its frequent training and planning montages.
Once we finally get to the aerial footage, we learn that, far more than acumen as a pilot, what Doug needs to succeed, and is the most important thing to take with you into battle, is a Sony Walkman cassette tape player. The film makes an example of this at least a dozen times.
FAST FACT: “Iron Eagle” beat “Top Gun” to theaters, but it lost the box office race by a country mile. The film made $24 million to “Top Gun’s” $180 million.
Playing Doug’s loyal friends, Jerry Levine (a scene stealer as “Styles” in “Teen Wolf”) and Larry B. Scott (from “Revenge of the Nerds”) vanish by the second act, while the filmmakers clearly didn’t know what they had with Melora Walters (who played Jan Levin-Gould in “The Office” decades later)
She plays Doug’s girlfriend, but there’s weirdly no chemistry between her and Gedrick, as the filmmakers don’t allow that plot thread to build. As the main heavy, Suchet, a magnetic veteran actor (perhaps best known for playing Hercule Poirot on TV) is as commanding here playing the stereotypical bad guy as he was playing a similar role in “Executive Decision” (1996) a decade later.
This is a total fantasy, as there’s so consequences for the actions of anyone here. “Chappie,” in particular, all too willing goes along with Doug’s insane plan, in spite of how it will obviously cost him his entire military career.
The wrap-up sequence is far too convenient – surely more than an extremely mild slap on the wrist is in store for breaking all the rules and basically starting World War III. I guess I should relax and note that, like a popular ’80s breakfast cereal, this is just “for kids.”
At least there’s great aerial footage and hot doggin,’ even when the blue screen and models are clearly a part of creating the illusion. This is the kind of movie where we’re supposed to get a lump in our throat when Dad sits in the cockpit and declares, “Way to fly, Doug!”
“Iron Eagle,” for all its inherent dopiness, is a lot of fun. With its on-the-nose politics and aggressive (but not ultra-slick) declaration as an ’80s movie, it may deliver for some audiences even more fully than “Top Gun,” which kept its geo-politics purposely murky and its glossy, MTV-ready visuals front and center.
Gossett Jr.’s warmth and authority are why this resonates, though never underestimate the power of a well-chosen tape cassette to play during an aerial battle. Surely that’s something they never taught Maverick at Top Gun.