Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag follows Capt. John Stratton, an F-15 Eagle pilot, as he engages in the world's largest air war games. Ready for two weeks of simulated combat, 125 pilots representing six nations gather at Nellis AFB just outside Las Vegas. (The takeoffs and landings appear so close to the Strip that you half expect the pilots to unbuckle and start hitting the slots at the Bellagio.)
But it's not clear what the intended audience is for this IMAX release. Little Tommy Cruise wanna-bes with visions of Top Gun swirling through their mental afterburners are going to be disappointed. The only really stomach-churning moments arrive when Stratton's F-15 is hugging the hills and canyons, flying under the radar, then swooping and slanting to turn, so that 60 feet of movie screen suddenly seems to tilt at 45 degrees. But the take-off-and-zoom-straight-up sequences, meant to be gut-rattling, are undercut by Stratton's peering up and around and over his shoulder, as if he's lost his car keys (jet keys?) somewhere inside the cockpit.
And Fighter Pilot doesn't feel like an Air Force recruiting film, at least not one aimed at pilot recruitment. Some of the most suspenseful sequences involve preflight preparations: With ground crews checking this and adjusting that, you get a real sense of how many people it takes to keep multi-million-dollar jets capable of 600 mph loop-de-loops. With mission planners, mechanics, search-and-recovery teams and firefighters, there's a lot more to it than just the fly boys themselves.
Director Stephen Low's film, sponsored by Boeing Corp., doesn't provide much in the way of you-are-there realism. In fact, Fighter Pilot is remarkable for how stagy its simulations seem; its actors seem wooden even when they're playing themselves. Too often, Low allows musical director Michael Casson's drums and violins to soar obtrusively.
What does come across is just how much more complex dogfights have become in an AWACS era. The computer graphics are fascinating, with Canadians in orange and Brits in green flying in simulated 3-D formation, swooping their contrails in corkscrew spirals on the surveillance plane's video screens. The guys monitoring the war games, it turns out, have even cooler jobs than the pilots themselves.
Fighter Pilot does a good job of conveying patriotism without exaggeration. It's awe-inspiring to witness a Stealth fighter floating noiselessly into view or to watch the F-15s hover just so under a huge refueling tanker. The final day of Red Flag war-gaming involves live ordnance -- lots of old tanks are fireballed to hell -- and you get a sense of the scale and danger of modern air warfare. To help defend our country, real people face real dangers.
In Fighter Pilot, unfortunately, the computer simulations are more engaging than the actual dogfights.