The olive-green Apache helicopter featured in Fire Birds is a nifty contraption, with a long, thin body and spindly tentacles that give it the appearance of a mechanical dragonfly. The movie, a third-rate knockoff of Top Gun and Blue Thunder, is about a crew of young pilots who are chosen for an elite Army task force. Their mission: to wage war against a Central American drug cartel. Fire Birds strains for ''timeliness'' the film practically pats itself on the back for featuring villains that have been in the news recently. Yet, with the exception of one anonymous enemy pilot, we never even get to see the bad guys. And so it's hard to work up much enthusiasm for their destruction. They might as well have been terrorists or overworked accountants.
Nicolas Cage plays the hotdogging hero, who goes head-to-head with his commanding flight instructor (Tommy Lee Jones) and must deal with the fact that one of the other pilots is his former girlfriend (Sean Young). Cage seems to be enjoying the chance to rein himself in and play a patriotic straight arrow. You can feel his delight as he wraps his grousy monotone around lines like ''They killed our people and they killed our friends! Their drugs kill Americans every day!''
Still, this isn't the sort of role an operatic wild man like Cage can really sink his fangs into. He gives a dull, one-note performance. The climactic air battle is well staged, though without the edge-of-the-envelope dread that made the Top Gun dogfights genuinely thrilling. The action here is more like something you'd expect to pop a quarter in a machine for.