#403 – Airwolf (1984)
Film review #403
Director: Donald Bellisario
SYNOPSIS: A military exercise to showcase a new state-of-the-art helicopter codenamed “Airwolf” takes a disturbing turn when its designer and pilot, Dr. Moffet, goes rogue by destroying the testing facility, and taking Airwolf to Libya. The head of a CIA division named “The Firm” travels to the home of Stringfellow Hawke, a recluse who was a test pilot for Airwolf, with an offer of a million dollars to reclaim the helicopter. String is reluctant to do it, but agrees to it on the condition that The Firm find his brother St. John, who went M.I.A. during the Vietnam war seventeen years ago…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Airwolf is a 1984 TV movie, which also served as the pilot for the Airwolf TV series. In the opening scene, we see a military training exercise showing off the highly-advanced military helicopter codenamed “Airwolf” to a U.S. senator. The whole scene is really just an excuse to get some action scenes with the helicopter in right from the start, and it certainly delivers, as the helicopter flies faster than the speed of sound, outmanoeuvres missiles and just blows a lot of things up, you get the action you would expect and a good idea of what Airwolf can do right from the outset, and should get viewers hooked right away, with the technical jargon being spliced in with the action which illustrates quite clearly what they’re talking about. At the end of the exercise, the pilot Dr. Moffet, who is also the designer of Airwolf, attacks the testing facility and escapes with Airwolf along with the two co-pilots. The themes of the story are rooted in cold-war military operations and espionage, and as such has a dark tone throughout, amplified by the use of strong language and high body count that gives it much more of a serious feel than contemporary vehicle-based shows such as Knight Rider.
Archangel, The head of an intelligence agency only known as “The Firm,” visits the home of recluse Stringfellow Hawke (yes that is his real name, and yes it is the best name ever), who was a test pilot for Airwolf. Archangel attempts to recruit Hawke for a mission to steal Airwolf back from Moffet, who has joined up with Kaddafi’s forces in Libya. Hawke is reluctant to do so, but agrees to it on the condition that The Firm finds his brother St. John (does anyone in this family have a normal name?), who went missing in Vietnam on a military operation seventeen years ago, where Stringfellow made it out, but his brother did not. A lot of the film focuses on establishing Stringfellow’s character as a solitary, cultured man of few words, but who can also spring into action when necessary. His story is one of loss, not only of his brother, but also their parents who died when he was ten, and also his girlfriend in a car crash. This is played out as Archangel’s assistant Gabriela tries to get close to Hawke, but his coldness to her is a reminder that anyone who gets too close to him dies. Hawke’s character really drives a lot of the scenes, but there’s also action sequences interspersed within them as Moffet is piloting Airwolf to attack a variety of French and American forces, so it keeps giving some more action-oriented scenes to balance out the character development. Backing Hawke up is his friend Dominic Santini, who raised Stringfellow and his brother after their parents died. Dom plays a bit more of a comic relief role, but still a capable ally, and one that doesn’t upset the dark tone that the film goes for.
We don’t get to see Stringfellow in Airwolf until the finale, but as mentioned there’s plenty of action scenes with Moffet as the pilot so you can get a good sense of what Airwolf can do (also good for a TV pilot in that it shows Airwolf in a variety of situations that could be employed over the series). A real helicopter is used for the flight scenes, and the stunts and choreography are all well done, as well as the interior of Airwolf being full of flashy (for the time) gadgets and screens. Moffet himself is clearly unhinged, and though it is never explained why he has gone rogue other than implying something that happened with a project that the Senator at the beginning was involved with, Moffet’s real motivation seems to simply be boredom and enjoys taking risks and blowing people up some light entertainment. Overall, Airwolf has a good mix of action, intrigue and espionage combined with some good character development that is balanced between the different personalities of the characters. The dark tone pushes some boundaries, and gives the story a decent intensity that allows viewers to remain engaged throughout the different elements of the plot. The ending is left rather open, but as a pilot for the TV series, it is meant to be picked up there (and it is). As a stand-alone film though, it is still likeable and entertaining enough to sit through.