Submitted by Tornado Dragon
After Billy blows up some of General Soong’s heroin lab with a makeshift time bomb as a way to get back at him for earlier having him transport the stuff without his knowledge, Soong, Major Lemond, and Diehl decide to frame him as the leader of the drug trafficking operation in order to appease Senator Davenport and allow them to continue their operation without any further scrutiny. Lemond and Diehl do this the following day by planting a bag of heroin in one of the sacks of flour that Billy is delivering to a village in a Porter airplane along with Babo, then tampering with the fuel gauge so he will have to land on an airstrip where they and Davenport will be waiting along with some of Soong’s troops, after which he will be killed. However, Billy ultimately figures out this plot and instead heads for an unused Japanese airstrip a distance away that he crashed a cargo plane on a couple of days before, where he lands the Porter and sends it into the body of the crashed plane in order to hide it – and himself and Babo – from view. When Lemond, Diehl, Soong, and Davenport fly over in their helicopters, they fail to spot Billy, Babo, or their plane and return home, with Davenport telling Lemond that he has realized that he and Diehl just tried to frame an innocent man. Lemond defiantly replies that he can go ahead and take his findings to the White House if he wants, but if he does so, it will result in the slow death of his political career because President Nixon loves him.
Billy and Babo radio Gene while he is out picking up all of his stashes of black market weapons to deliver to a buyer and ask him to come get them, and he agrees to. After he picks them up and they are flying towards his last weapons stash, they get a radio message from Corinne, a USAID official working at the nearby refugee camp, requesting assistance because the Pathet Lao and the Royal Laotian Army are fighting each other for control of the poppy fields (and thus the opium required for heroin production) right next to the camp. Billy guilts Gene into flying to the camp to save her, but when they arrive, they find out that she requested help not only for herself but for a bunch of refugees who weren’t evacuated with the others due to a lack of trucks and choppers. Gene ultimately decides to dump his entire cargo to make room for them, and once they are all aboard, he blows up the cargo with a grenade so the explosion will cover their escape. As they fly away, Gene decides to sell the cargo plane to make up for the loss of his “retirement plan”.
Just before the credits roll, we find out through intertitles that (among other things) Gene joined his wife and children in Thailand, and though he failed at several businesses afterward, he won the Thai State Lottery in 1975. Billy also went to Thailand and became a computer whiz, but he was deported in 1976 for fixing the Thai State Lottery, having clearly done it to repay Gene.
One day, while Billy (Robert Downey Jr.) and his co-workers Jack (Art LaFleur) and Kwahn (Chanarona Suwanpa) are out airdropping livestock to rural villages, their C-123 cargo plane comes under fire from Communist Pathet Lao soldiers on the ground. One of the engines gets shot and rendered inoperable, dooming the plane to crash, but as it goes down, Billy gets a hold of Gene (Mel Gibson) – who is flying somewhere close by in his helicopter – over the radio and tells him that they need help. After Jack provides Gene with their current location, Gene informs them that there is an old unused Japanese airstrip near them that they can land on, and after he communicates to Air America HQ that he is going to get Billy and Jack, he heads after them. Billy has Jack and Kwahn parachute out while he crash-lands the plane on the airstrip, surviving unscathed. While the three men are waiting by the wreckage for help, a PC-6 Porter airplane flies in carrying Royal Laotian Army General Soong (Burt Kwouk) and some of his men, but after they land, they go into the wreck and collect the burlap sacks that they earlier placed in there, then put them in the Porter and take off, leaving Billy, Jack, and Kwahn behind. Jack casually tells Billy that there was opium in those sacks, angering him.
Around the time Gene arrives in his chopper – along with Pirelli (Ned Eisenberg) in another Porter – to pick them up, the trio has just come under attack from the Pathet Lao, and Billy jumps into the helicopter while Jack and Kwahn get into the Porter. Unfortunately, as Gene and Billy are escaping, the Communists’ gunfire damages the chopper, causing that to crash as well. Gene and Billy survive, however, and they then spend the rest of the day and into the following morning trekking through the jungle back to civilization while Jack, Pirelli, and a couple of other Air America workers search for them from the air without success. As they walk, Billy takes a moment to state his disgust to Gene over how he has basically become a drug smuggler for the American government, but Gene counters that they and the rest of Air America’s staff are more like pack mules than smugglers. He tries to explain to Billy that no one has ever won a war in this part of the world without the control of the opium trade, and they help Soong get his local crop to market in exchange for him helping them fight the Communists. Billy refuses to accept this explanation, saying that their government is running a war with drug money, and as a consequence, American soldiers over in Vietnam are getting strung out on the stuff. He asks Gene if any of this bothers him in his soul, but Gene tells him to leave his soul out of this and reminds him that they don’t officially work for the U.S. government.
In the morning, Billy and Gene are captured by a rural tribe and brought to their village, but Gene is able to obtain their release after he makes a deal with the villagers to supply them with better weapons after pointing out how antiquated and unreliable their rifles are. Gene then takes Billy to his house, and there, Billy finds out that he has a wife and two children. While the two men are relaxing, later on, Gene admits that he has already grown disillusioned with American actions in Laos, and he tells Billy that he ought to quit Air America and go back home or else he will become just another “trouble junkie” like he and the other workers are. Billy says that he will do so, but before he goes, he wants to get even with Soong for what he did yesterday. Gene tries to tell him that getting back at Soong isn’t really worth it, but it seems clear that his mind is made up. That night, Senator Davenport (Lane Smith) loses his patience with Air America’s leaders Major Lemond (Ken Jenkins) and Diehl (David Marshall Grant) (who have been diverting his attention away from Air America with a sightseeing tour of Laos so he doesn’t get irrefutable evidence that the company is transporting drugs), and he tells them that he will be returning to Washington D.C. soon and he cannot – and will not – go back without the heads of those responsible for the heroin trade on a platter, warning Lemond that the rumors alone about Air America will kill him on Capitol Hill.
The next day, Gene, Billy, Babo (Tim Thomerson), and the other Air America workers find out from Diehl that Jack was killed by Pathet Lao soldiers last night when they shot his aircraft down while he was searching for Gene and Billy. Later, while Gene is hanging out with Soong and Davenport at a native village awaiting the completion of a coffin for Jack, Davenport asks Gene if Jack was flying heroin when he went down. After a pause, Gene tells him that he wasn’t. As Gene, Billy, Babo, and their co-workers are out drinking that night in remembrance of Jack, Gene tells the guys that he is leaving Air America, having found a buyer to take all of his stashes of black market weapons, and he has already sent his wife and children on ahead to Thailand. He then looks over at another table where Davenport, Diehl, and Lemond are sitting and tells his comrades that he spent the day with Davenport and found out that the higher-ups are looking for some fall guys regarding the opium trade, so they had better watch their backs. Shortly afterward, Billy sneaks into the nearby Pepsi factory where the heroin laboratory is hidden, having decided to get his revenge on Soong by blowing up the lab (which he tells Gene about beforehand). He creates a makeshift time bomb using some grenades that he earlier bought off the black market, sets it near the equipment, and then runs away from the scene just as the bomb explodes and destroys some of the lab. Soong, Diehl, and Lemond come over to examine the damage, and Soong fingers Billy as the culprit since a guard saw him running away. Needing someone to take the blame for the drug trafficking operation, Lemond asks Soong to give him two kilograms of heroin “for the cause”.
At Air America HQ the next morning, Gene secures a C-123 for “personal use”, obviously intending to transport his weapons on it, and Billy is set to deliver sacks of flour to a village with Babo in a Porter as his last job before quitting. Before they board their respective aircrafts, Gene informs Billy that his attempt to destroy the lab only caused a brief setback; heroin production resumed just a few hours later. In the middle of his flight, Billy receives word from Air America’s radio operator that an order has just come in for him to change course to another airstrip for a “routine inspection”, and after telling Babo about it, Babo informs him that he has never heard of such a thing before. His suspicions stirred, Billy tells Babo to check their cargo, for he believes that they are being set up. Moments later, his suspicions are proven correct when Babo cuts open one of the sacks and finds a bag of heroin in it. Lemond and Diehl are shown waiting at the airstrip for Billy along with Davenport and a bunch of Soong’s troops, revealing that they had planted the heroin in Billy’s cargo so he could be framed and then immediately killed (and though Davenport knows that they are trying to catch “a young man from California”, he has not been told that that man is Billy).
Billy and Babo see what is waiting for them at the airstrip and correctly deduce why all of those people are there, and then they notice that the fuel gauge has been tampered with (thanks to Diehl), undoubtedly so they would have to land there. Billy decides to change course and try to land at the same Japanese airstrip he crashed his earlier plane on, even though he and Babo know that the antagonists will just follow them there. Billy lands the Porter on the airstrip and then plows it dead center into the body of the crashed cargo plane, both so they can come to a stop and avoid injury and death and also hide both the Porter and themselves from sight when the antagonists come in. They radio Gene for help while he is collecting his weapons and he agrees to come and get them, and then the duo keeps themselves hidden when Lemond and company fly over in their helicopters. The villains fail to spot the men or their plane, and Davenport tells Lemond and Diehl that he has just realized that this whole thing was an attempted frame-up orchestrated by them. Lemond harshly replies that he can kiss his butt, then tells him that he can go right into the White House and pour his heart out about everything he thinks he saw here in Laos, but if he does so, it will result in the slow death of his political career because President Nixon loves him. He then tells Diehl that he really is second-level before ordering the pilot to take them home.
A short time later, Gene picks up Billy and Babo, and while they are flying towards his last weapons stash, Gene tells the others of a situation that is currently going on over at the refugee camp: Soong and the Royal Laotian Army have been forcibly evicting the entire camp so Soong can take full control of the poppy fields next to it and thus the opium required for heroin production, worried that the Pathet Lao or others will get to the field first. Meanwhile, the Pathet Lao have already shown up outside the camp and started trading salvos with Soong’s soldiers, endangering the innocents, and after USAID official Corinne (Nancy Travis) receives word that there are no more trucks or choppers left to get the remaining refugees to safety, she gets on the radio and sends out a distress call to all aircraft, saying that enemy troops are moving in on Soong and they are caught in the crossfire and need immediate assistance. After Gene and the others hear it, Billy is able to guilt Gene into flying in and saving Corinne since they are closer to the camp than anyone else. However, after they land, they discover that Corinne radioed for help not just for herself, but for the refugees as well, and she orders Gene to dump his entire cargo to make room for them. Even though he knows he is costing himself his “retirement plan”, Gene ultimately decides that he can’t subject the innocents to any more danger and moves all of the weapons out of the plane with Billy’s and Babo’s help and gets everyone aboard. After seeing a small group of Pathet Lao soldiers making their way towards the plane, Gene destroys his entire stockpile with one of the grenades so that the explosion will cover their escape.
After they get airborne, Gene tells Billy that he blames him for making him lose all of the money he could’ve gotten from selling his cargo and that he is going to help him get it back, and when Billy asks where they are going to get that kind of money, Gene decides that they will sell off the very cargo plane they’re in. As they continue to fly away, we learn through intertitles of what became of them and a few other key characters:
- Lemond was indicted during the Iran-Contra investigation. He was pardoned, promoted, and sent to Panama to help Manuel Noriega keep drugs out of America.
- Diehl was called before a Senate Committee during the Iran-Contra investigation. He repeated the phrase “I have no clear memory of that, sir” 115 times.
- Soong eventually moved to the U.S. and became an owner and operator of a Holiday Inn in Southern California, which he dreamed of doing. He also became a major force in the California Savings and Loan business.
- Gene joined his family in Thailand. He started six businesses, all of which failed. However, in 1975, he won the Thai State Lottery.
- Billy went to Thailand and eventually became a computer whiz, but he was deported in 1976 for fixing the Thai State Lottery (which he clearly did to repay Gene).