Remember that old Saturday Night Live TV-commercial parody about a product called ''Shimmer''? It was a floor wax and a dessert topping. Well, Air America is a zany buddy comedy and a political-message movie. It's also a Mel Gibson action thriller and a tear-jerky '60s period piece about an American mercenary who shucks his cynicism and Learns to Care. I bet a bowl of Shimmer would be more appetizing.
Set in Laos in 1969, the movie casts Gibson (Entertainment Weekly, Aug. 17) as Gene Ryack, part of an elite secret corps of mercenary pilots who take daredevil flights through enemy gunfire, dropping medicine and food to the local peasants. Gene will do anything for the right payoff. He runs weapons on the side and turns the other cheek to the real purpose of the clandestine missions, which is to transport bags of opium for the CIA. In exchange for this service, the U.S. receives the cooperation of the Laotian army.
Everyone in Air America speaks with such up-to-the-minute cool irony that you have to keep reminding yourself that this rambling, lightweight comedy is supposed to be about the Vietnam War. The filmmakers, obviously ''inspired'' by M*A*S*H and Good Morning, Vietnam, are trying for a potpourri of antiestablishment high jinks and antiwar earnestness. But the movie has no script, and even the better gags like one in which a couple of the pilots scribble away at coloring books in the backseat of a plane could have been staged more vividly. Between bamboozling us with sermonettes on the subject of American corruption, the movie limits Gibson to the occasional world-weary barb. Meanwhile, Robert Downey Jr., as his loyal sidekick, is without his usual brash, chipmunk charm. Downey seems out of it, as though he were trying to pass off enervation as understatement.
Mel certainly looks fantastic, all tanned and leathery. Yet he hasn't been placed front and center enough to triumph over his ragtag surroundings. Contending for the movie's shoddiest scene: a visual gag in which Downey is dangled from a helicopter and flown like some religious deity over a Buddhist temple; Mel's embarrassing speech about ''the politics of Saturday night,'' in which he explains that the Commies are okay after all because they know how to party; and a bit in which two cuh-razy Asian nightclub singers do a version of ''Horse With No Name,'' a song that came out so long after the movie is set (it topped the charts in 1972) that it makes you wonder whether anyone connected with Air America was even around during the '60s. D+