Iron Eagle is a towering monument to the glorious absurdity, inconceivable decision-making and gonzo onscreen antics that make Hollywood so adorable.
Released on Jan. 17, 1986, the movie was a passion project of Canadian Sidney J. Furie. A director with a fine resume – he holds a lifetime achievement award from the Director’s Guild of Canada and was nominated for a Palme d’Or at Cannes for 1965’s The Ipcress File – Furie began working on the script with Kevin Elders during the 1984 Olympics, only to have it “turned down by every studio in town.” In classic Hollywood tradition, Furie refused to take this as a referendum on the quality of the script, instead insisting that his idea captured the spirit of the times and that everyone else was wrong.
He eventually found a home for it with the then-fledgling Tri-Star Pictures. The studio had been founded as a joint venture by Columbia, HBO and CBS in 1983, coming out of the gate with a bang in 1984 with The Natural staring Robert Redford. By 1986, though, Tri-Star had fallen on hard times, with many of its projects going straight to VHS before being kicked out to television on CBS and HBO.
This is perhaps the reason the studio took a chance on a little feel-good picture about a high-school kid who steals an F-16 from an Air Force base in California and flies it to the Middle East, where he defeats a small country in order to rescue his father from the clutches of a Muammar Gaddafi stand-in.
That is, indeed, the basic plot. But the real joy of Iron Eagle is in the details.
Watch ‘Iron Eagle’ Trailer
The film opens with American pilot Ted Masters (Tim Thomerson) engaging with several enemy MiG fighter planes over the sun-drenched Mediterranean, with disastrous consequences – not unlike the similarly plotted Top Gun.
Masters is shot down and captured by the residents of the fictional Middle Eastern country of Bilya, which announces, after a show trial, that it’s going to execute him in response to American aggression.
Meanwhile, back home in California, Masters’ son Doug (Jason Gedrick) is going through some typical high-school difficulties. He’s a bit of an outcast because he’s a member of a geeky club and his girlfriend is being harassed by a gang of local toughs that thinks he’s a loser. To stand up for himself, Doug challenges the leaders of the gang to a kind of duel.
Watch an Airplane Race a Motorcycle in ‘Iron Eagle’
But this duel is special: a race in which Doug will fly a Cessna and his archrival Knotcher (Michael Bowen) will ride a motorcycle. Doug wins. He has easy access to a Cessna, by the way, because he’s a part of a cheeky young flying club of Air Force brats who wear matching jackets and call themselves “The Iron Eagles.”
Doug’s triumph in the race is immense, but immediately afterward he finds out that his father has been shot down. So the Iron Eagles come up with a plan: They’ll infiltrate the Air Force base where their dads work, steal a bunch of schematics and hijack the computer system so that Doug can appropriate an F-16 and fly to the Middle East.
At some point in all of this scheming, Doug and his pals decide that they need some adult supervision, so they bring in Chappy Sinclair (Louis Gossett Jr.), an aging pilot still reeling over the losses of his young buddies in Vietnam. There’s a preparation montage – the kids play their high jinks on the base, and Chappy dances to James Brown while putting together attack plans – and then Doug and Chappy set out on their mission. At this point, things get even better.
Watch Chappy Dance in ‘Iron Eagle’
Chappy is shot down and dies. But he lives on, because he’s recorded a tape for Doug to listen to in case the worst happens. (Doug, young loose cannon he is, listens to music while he flies on a tape recorder strapped to his leg. This recorder is so powerful that at one point Doug and Chappy are running seven minutes late on their mission. Doug puts on Queen’s “One Vision,” and in the next line of dialogue, Chappy exclaims that it worked and they’ve made up three minutes. There’s no other explanation other than it was the ’80s.)
And it’s not just that Chappy metaphorically lives on. He really lives on, because at the end of the film he reappears to explain that he wasn’t actually killed – he just swam around in the Mediterranean for a while after his crash until he was rescued by some fishermen in a trawler.
Watch Queen Disrupt Space-Time Continuum in ‘Iron Eagle’
Vastly outnumbered by the Air Force of Bilya, Doug shoots down a bunch of planes, then bombs the country’s strategic oil reserves (“Looks like they’ll be importing oil this year!”) to try to force them to release his father. He then lands his F-16 and rescues his father, and then defeats the knockoff Gaddafi (who happens to be a pilot) in a mano-a-mano air duel.
Upon returning home, Doug is reunited with the resurrected Chappy and told by a panel of Air Force generals that there’s no way they can prosecute a hero like him, even for the theft of an airplane and the instigation of unauthorized military activity. He’s also granted acceptance into the Air Force Academy.
From Top Gun to Uncommon Valor – in which a group of American patriots journey to Vietnam to rescue POWs who’ve been held for 10 years after the end of the Vietnam War (also directed by a Canadian) – the ’80s were full of movies rather desperately announcing the return of American military might. The nation had been battered by the events of the ’70s, including the war, economic downturn and the Iran hostage crisis, and seemed to be in need of reassurance.
At the same time, the ’80s was the decade of the explosion of the teen dominance of the family dollar, with the focus on national renewal resulting in an adulation of youth. As a result, filmmaker after filmmaker jumped into the fray to try to make a buck off young folks.
With Iron Eagle, Furie saw these trends and melded them. And it worked. For better or worse, the movie was something of a sensation when it was released, earned more than its budget and spawned no less than three sequels. Sometimes, it turns out, the naysayers are wrong. A heroic little project that doesn’t adhere to convention, coherence, quality or logic can make some money after all. And in the end, far from being a flaw, isn’t that actually one of the reasons we love Hollywood?