There’s a new threat among us. It is faceless and fiendishly intelligent, with only one goal: to destroy its enemies. It feeds on technology, but also on something darker, gathering information it stores in an all-seeing nerve center. How dark is it? Let’s just say this: It has downloaded every last song available on the Internet. Look out, al-Qaeda!
In Stealth, a high-velocity, low-concept sky-attack thriller, the world is under siege by terrorists and rogue warlords, but the real danger is a foe more homegrown and familiar: your new wingman. It is not a man at all, you see, but a top secret American droid fighter plane that thinks and flies all by itself, operating entirely by computer. Nicknamed ”Eddie,” its actual moniker being the acronym EDI (so clever), it looks like a giant copper stingray, with a pulsating blue marble of a brain housed in its cockpit, and it even talks — in a voice meant to evoke HAL, the ominously sensitive computer-with-feelings from 2001: A Space Odyssey. EDI is programmed to kill, but when he speaks, in those dulcet tones of servitude, he’s like KITT from Knight Rider on his wimpiest day. He’s so icky-fey that he sounds as if he’s warming up to play Felix in a dinner-theater production of The Odd Couple.
The job of breaking in this awesome hunk of machinery has fallen to Ben (Josh Lucas), Kara (Jessica Biel), and Henry (Jamie Foxx), an elite task force of Naval Air Force pilots who are used to working as a close-knit trio. They have no desire to take on a fourth member of the team, let alone one that isn’t human. The decision, however, has already been made by their commanding officer (Sam Shepard), a sinister crew-cut firebrand who is plugged into the corridors of power.
The creators of Stealth have devised what sounds like a shrewdly corrupt strategy for having their bombs-away excess and eating it, too. Directed by Rob Cohen, the youth-action pulp packager who made The Fast and the Furious and XXX, the movie, with its opening crawl about fighting ”the enemy” and its demagogic grab bag of global threats, was obviously conceived as a Top Gun for the new millennium: a fantasy of good-looking kids in hyperspeed planes zapping evil out of the sky. Stealth is full of whooshing jet engines, hurtling landings on aircraft carriers, and lava orange fireballs — the standard aerial military videogame porn. Except that it’s EDI the droid cruiser that gets to do all the macho-decadent, neo-’80s ass-kicking stuff; it even blasts cruddy power-synth rock & roll. This allows Lucas’ Ben, the group’s hot-dog renegade of a leader, to remain a good liberal citizen, and for the movie to pander to xenophobic war-on-terror absolutism without falling into it. Ordered to target a Tajikistani warlord who is parading a cache of nuclear weapons, Ben rejects the assignment, recoiling at any possibility of collateral damage. It’s EDI, the programmed superfighter, who blasts first and asks questions later. He’s the one who needs to have his wings clipped.
I went into Stealth hoping that its talented cast might make it more entertaining than it had any right to be. Yet the stars are asked to chew on the driest of technobabble, and to strike poses of flyboy and flygirl moxie that make them look callow rather than heroic. Josh Lucas, with his junior Kevin Costner dreamboat-hayseed sexiness, is an appealing actor with a wholesome, easy style, but he needs to tone down his crinkled glow of self-love. It’s almost bizarre to see Jamie Foxx in a role this lightweight after his complex triumph in Ray. (Stealth was shot before he won the Oscar.) When he isn’t strapped into his cockpit, Foxx doesn’t get to do much besides strut, flirt, and spin a basketball; he brings little to the party apart from airy self-mockery. Jessica Biel, on the other hand, is so out of her depth that the movie’s biggest mistake was to strand her in North Korea. Her parachute crash landing is Stealth’s one truly harrowing action sequence, but whenever the film cuts to her ragged scramble to the border, it stops dead.
In all the attacks on liberal Hollywood, it is often forgotten that Top Gun, a movie that might almost have been commissioned by the Navy, was a perfect pop paradigm of Reaganite swagger. Stealth, a dregs-of-summer knockoff, is too ponderous and inept to serve a comparable function now, yet the film’s lack of thrust may be related to an absence of conviction about its own war-is-a-videogame clichés. On some level, the people who made this movie understand that it’s no longer hip, the way that it was 20 years ago, to sit in a chair and cheer as other people fight.