Retro Review: FLIGHT OF THE INTRUDER (1991)

With a rare couple of hours to myself, and quite up to date with my TV viewing, I found myself on the couch with a gap in my schedule and nothing to fill it. A lazy trawl through what was available and I stumbled across a movie, starting in just minutes. It was a movie I had seen once, probably at the age of about 16 years old, and I recalled not liking it too much at the time – Flight Of The Intruder.


Not over-analyzing, I grabbed a beer and settled down to watch it again for the first time in 30 years. I am glad I did. I didn’t research or prepare, so I was quietly delighted when John Milius appeared as the writer and director in the opening credits.

Milius wrote the first two Dirty Harry films, received an Academy Award nomination as the screenwriter of Apocalypse Now (1979), and wrote and directed The Wind and the Lion (1975), Conan the Barbarian (1982), and all-time favorite of any 80s kid Red Dawn.

He’s also widely rumored to have been involved in numerous script polishes over the years, and sometimes unofficially credited with Quint’s Indianapolis speech in Jaws. He’s also known as paying attention to detail when it comes to military matters.


Flight Of The Intruder is produced by Mace Neufeld, hot of the success of The Hunt For Red October. There was a script, and John McTiernan was originally going to direct. He dropped out. The Russian sequences The Hunt For Red October had been rewritten at Sean Connery’s request by Milius, so he was well known to the producers. When the vacancy came up, the producers pulled him in.

Milius liked the novel it was based on very much. He said:

“It was such an internal examination of that life and what it takes to fly. There was such wonderful reality on life aboard a naval carrier and life in Vietnam. I loved the whole idea of what those guys do”.

It was a shame that the script he was given didn’t measure up to the book. This original script was described as Top Gun in Vietnam and was far removed from the book, and reality. Milius immediately started re-writing it.

I am glad he did, as there is a lot to like here. Most of the characters are seasoned pros, so it completely sidesteps any plucky rookie, earning their stripes stereotypes. It deals with their frustrations with the Vietnam War and presents what feels like a more realistic, less macho representation of life on a carrier than Top Gun. The characters feel more rounded.

The action starts right away, in the middle of a bombing raid by a Grumman A6 Intruder. Lieutenant Jake “Cool Hand” Grafton and his bombardier/navigator and best friend Lieutenant Morgan “Morg” McPherson are over the Gulf of Tonkin heading towards North Vietnam. Their target is a suspected truck park that turns out to be a bust.


On the return to the carrier, Morg is fatally shot in the neck by an armed Vietnamese peasant shooting randomly at their aircraft. Grafton’s frustration at the loss of his friend on such a pointless mission is what propels the plot forward.

What really stood out to me was the cast. It is so good that the lead only gets third billing. Up the marquee ahead of Brad Johnson as Grafton is Danny Glover as Commander Frank Camparelli – Grafton’s superior – and Willem Dafoe as Lieutenant Commander Virgil Cole, Grafton’s new Navigator/Bombardier.


Elsewhere it seems like half of Hollywood turns up in some form or another. Rosanna Arquette is the romantic interest. Ving Rhames is a member of the deck crew. Tom Sizemore plays a lovable and semi-tragic figure as another A6 pilot, and even David Schwimmer puts in an appearance.

Milius himself has a small cameo in a court martial scene, while the Future U.S. Senator, and commander of the USS Enterprise in Red October, Fred Thompson also appears.

The almost faceless enemies are well represented by the sinister threat of the SAM – surface-to-air missile. No dogfights here, just the balls needed to stay on target under heavy fire. Danny Glover is great fun as the permanently angry CO. Willem Dafoe is his usual slightly off-center and unsettling self. Most importantly, Milius gives his characters time to talk and do things other than fly planes and bark cocky one-liners at each other.

There are some minor nitpicks. The VFX is decidedly shaky in a few scenes, with overlays of planes and model work a little too obvious. Also, in the final act, the movie loses all sense of time and distance in order to progress the plot.


But overall I now can’t think why I didn’t like this first time around. Maybe I was young and stupid and wanted, or expected, Top Gun II. Milius himself didn’t enjoy the experience, stating publically that Paramount was way too controlling and he could have made a better film for less money if they just left him alone.

The novel it was based on, by Stephen Coonts, would be recommended by Tom Clancy and Ronald Reagan. It would also go on to spawn an entire series of books starring Grafton as a character. Might be time to start reading those at some point.


Either way, I was entertained for two hours and had my immature opinion of this movie changed. It is worth checking out.

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