This is the sort of movie that prompts a person to think that grammarians may have to come up with a fourth degree of comparison in order to describe something accurately–like dumb, dumber, dumbest and “Stealth.” Rob Cohen’s movie about a talking, computer-controlled superbomber that goes berserk and threatens to initiate a world-wide cataclysm is an unholy combination of “Dr. Strangelove” and “2001” that manages to trash both those Kubrick masterpieces at once. (At one point it even quotes the earlier film practically verbatim when the general in charge of testing the plane complains to its designer, “You promised us this could never happen.” Would that he were talking about the over-the-top chaos that besets the last act of Cohen’s picture! And one presumes that the same general’s final scene, which apes that of Jack D. Ripper in “Strangelove,” is intended as a homage.) But “Stealth” is also a mindless orgy of jingoistic claptrap, macho posturing, conspiracy-theory nonsense and comic-book heroics that, in the final reels, reaches such heights of absurdity that one can only gasp in disbelief at the increasing levels of gung-ho, high-octane idiocy on display. (Indeed, the decisions taken by the purportedly human characters at the close would seem likelier to cause a major war than anything that malevolent aircraft had previously attempted.)
Of course the wild-eyed excesses of the movie–narrative, visual and aural–will come as no surprise to those familiar with Cohen’s past movies (which include “The Fast and the Furious” and “XXX”). And on the level of mindless noise and action, the picture can’t be faulted: “Stealth” is a marvel of technology, with full-throttle flying sequences that put such scenes in earlier flicks to shame (a set-piece involving refueling is particularly impressive, as well as being another Kubrick reference–to the title credits in “Strangelove,” of course). The problem is that all this formidable apparatus is put at the service of a story that might have some slender basis in fact, but takes it so far into lunacy-land that by the close the mind boggles. The premise is that the Navy pilots of a trio of super-secret stealth fighters–strong-jawed Ben Gannon (Josh Lucas), fast-talking Henry Purcell (Jamie Foxx) and beauteous perfectionist Kara Wade (Jessica Biel), to whom Ben in understandably attracted–are suddenly joined on their carrier home by a new team member–an experimental UCAV (unmanned combat aerial vehicle) manned by a talking computer and called “EDI.” This “next wave” of aircraft is the pet project of our heroes’ commanding officer, Captain Cummings (Sam Shepard), who, as we will learn, has considerable political clout and proves willing to go to extremes to protect the new plane when, after being struck by lightning, it goes haywire and, in imitation of HAL-9000, ignores human orders not to attack targets it sees as threatening, in the process violating other nations’ airspace and taking things to the verge of war. And when the three pilots try to stop EDI, the plane turns on them as well. There’s a big finale when Cummings, madly attempting to salvage the project, sends one of his pilots to a secret base in Alaska, where the markedly sinister staff appear ready to do away with him rather than help him, and a huge firestorm is unleashed along the Korean DMZ in an effort to rescue a downed flier. (One can hardly doubt that so unrestrained an incursion would unleash whatever nuclear devices North Korea might possess, but that possibility goes unmentioned here.)
Though unmanned fighter planes are undoubtedly a future likelihood and the issue raised here about war becoming a bloodless video game (except for the enemy) raises real ethical concerns (a debate personalized in the different views taken by Cummings on the one hand and the captain of the carrier on which they’re stationed, played somberly by Joe Morton), “Stealth” unfortunately treats all such potentially serious matters in the most ludicrously juvenile fashion imaginable. Its approach isn’t the pointedly satirical one of a “Strangelove,” but the adolescent goofiness of “Furious” and “XXX”–a real case of arrested development. Ultimately nothing much matters but the illusion of speed, the adrenaline rushes, the big explosions, the mock heroics and the hissable villains. “Stealth” is a story about real issues made for an audience of ten-year old video-game geeks with minuscule attention spans and no sense of reality. (At one point, for instance, we’re asked to believe that a high-rise building in the midst of a bustling urban setting in Myanmar–the old Burma–can be brought down by an “implosion” device without causing any collateral damage. Maybe on a computer screen.)
Under the circumstances the cast acquit themselves as well as can be expected. Lucas lays on the boyish charm and sticks out the jutting chin, while Foxx–who must have been cast in his undemanding part well before last year’s “Ray” and “Collateral”–plays the hipster he used to be on series television, something that requires little effort of him. As for Biel, she’s svelte, smiles nicely and runs athletically–which is about all that’s expected of her. Even Shepard’s iconic presence can’t bring any real heft to the single-minded Cummings. (Compared to Sterling Hayden, he seems a wuss.) Wentworth Miller, meanwhile, proves no Douglas Rain as the voice of EDI. Too tinny and mechanical, like Alpha on “Power Rangers.”
As a technical exercise in action-movie effects, “Stealth” has a certain fascination. But as a movie, it embodies a line Cummings speaks when his plans go awry. Mimicking Donald Rumsford’s words about messiness in Iraq, he says simply, “Things go wrong.” That’s true of filmmaking, too, as this picture amply demonstrates.