Touchstone and Beyond: A History of Disney’s “Fire Birds”

With Top Gun: Maverick soon to be released, this week is devoted to a forgotten film from the Touchstone Pictures vault that directly uses the Top Gun formula, Fire Birds. There’s no Pete Mitchell, instead, we get Jake Preston played by Nicolas Cage, who needs the guidance of an elder pilot played by Tommy Lee Jones to get him up to speed for an important mission.  

The Plot

Jake Preston is hot shot Apache helicopter pilot who barely survives a mission in Mexico. The United States government has issued a proclamation stating that they will help any country take on the drug cartels. A joint taskforce operation between the US and Mexico ends in tragedy, and thanks to Preston’s enthusiasm and the will of the President of the United States, a new mission is assembled.

The one catch is that the Apache helicopter pilots need to be better trained to survive the fight with the drug cartels. An elder ace pilot named Brad Little is brought to lead the training. He takes a shine to Preston immediately. Little’s mentor role helps Preston through the ups and downs of training, and when the new mission is launched Little, Preston, and the rest of the army will find themselves in a deadly duel for survival.

The Good

Nicolas Cage is great. This is the earliest sign of his blending between creative character development and the tough guy action role that Cage plays well. Preston is arrogant but likable and that is thanks to Cage and his approach to the character.

There is no one else, except Tom Skerritt, who could play the mentor role like Tommy Lee Jones. He’s tough, with a soft spot, and supremely confident in his ability to make great pilots. Cage may be the star, but Jones has an equal footing in the movie, and thankfully he gets to be one of the pilots in the final battle.

Tommy Lee Jones and Sean Young have the best scene in the film. Near the climax of the film, Jones must instruct Young on how to make a rocket launcher out of a wrecked helicopter. The interplay between the two is pure gold.

The Bad and the Ugly

Fire Birds is the Top Gun of helicopters. While I found they used the formula well, if you aren’t a fan of the gung-ho military adventure films, you might want to sit this movie out.

Beyond the Film Facts

  • On opening weekend, the movie made just over six million dollars and quickly dropped off the box office radar in the following weeks.
  • An early original title for the movie was Night of the Apache.
  • In some theatrical releases around the world, the film was titled Wings of the Apache.
  • Disney was not involved in the film's distribution world-wide as they had sold those rights to independent companies.
  • Dale Dye, who plays McNeil, served in Vietnam, and runs a company that trains actors to prepare for military roles. His legendary bootcamp for the stars is the stuff that nightmares are made of. Dye has also worked closely with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks on Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers.

The Streamy Award

{The following four categories are based on a Film Reel scale.

1 Reel-Watch on your Smartphone, 2 Reels-Tablet Time, 3 Reels-Travel Entertainment, 4 Reels-Big Screen Event}

While I enjoyed Fire Birds it’s not an essential watch. The movie gets 1 Reel on the Streamy Award category. Don’t go out of your way to watch the movie, but if you catch it online, Fire Birds would make a great film to pass the time while sitting on the bus or subway.

Cast and Crew

  • Nicolas Cage as Jake Preston
  • Tommy Lee Jones as Brad Little
  • Sean Young as Billie Guthrie
  • Dale Dye as A.K. McNeil

Directed by David Green

Produced by Touchstone Pictures / Nova International Films

Release Date: May 25, 1990

Budget: $22 million

Box Office Gross

Domestic: $14,760,451

Coming Soon

Next week, When in Rome. We get to see Kristen Bell search for love, steal coins from a fountain in Italy, and face the consequences of her actions.