Aiming to join the Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay school of American movie war games, “Stealth” is just too dumb to make the grade. Director Rob Cohen’s fifth high-speed production with producer Neal H. Moritz (“XXX,” “The Fast and the Furious”) turns near-future Air Force jets guided by artificial intelligence into objects for thrill rides and nearly erotic pleasure while warning of a corrupt Pentagon at the core. As similarly a silly semi-sci fi actioner as Bay’s “The Island,” and with Jamie Foxx (thesping here before his Oscar win) relegated to a backup position, “Stealth” probably won’t stay airborne for too long.
Pic launches in an old-fashioned manner, establishing the tight relationship of crewmates Lt. Ben Gannon (Josh Lucas), Lt. Kara Wade (Jessica Biel) and Lt. Henry Purcell (Foxx). Trio, which reports to stern, craggy-faced Capt. George Cummings (Sam Shepard), was chosen from a field of naval air candidates to fly the latest brand of stealth fighters designed to instantly respond to sightings of terrorists anywhere in the world.
Although detail of Cummings’ political allies in Washington is briefly inserted and revisited from time to time, pic’s action essentially rubber-stamps the belief that U.S. air power can and will attack any point on the planet.
Once the crew is greenlit for duty on the USS Abraham Lincoln, Cummings surprises them with the introduction of a robotic fighter jet nicknamed “EDI.” The pilot-less craft EDI can fly and drop payloads without human emotion getting in the way.
Test flight with this added “wingman” turns into a full-blown attack on a downtown Rangoon high-rise where an international terrorist cell is housed. Gannon proves he can pull the attack off solo without EDI’s aid, but, alas, on the return to base EDI is zapped by a lightning bolt, triggering some erratic behavior.
“Stealth” mimics the Hal plot from “2001” in a way that falls uneasily between good-natured spoof and tribute. Besides the three-letter moniker, Wentworth Miller’s slightly effeminate tone as EDI’s voice copies Douglas Rain’s vocal performance as HAL. The idea that the computer gains a mind of its own is also repeated here, and even a scene where two concerned guys try to conceal themselves from EDI while talking about him echoes the pre-intermission climax of Kubrick’s sci fi masterwork.
After a Bruckheimeresque R&R sidetrip to Thailand, where Gannon and Wade declare they have the hots for each other without so much as a smooch, the trio is back with EDI. Ignoring Wade’s order to back off from bombing a nuclear-armed terrorist camp in Tajikistan, EDI goes on the attack, leaving the humans no choice but to join in.
“Stealth” distastefully visualizes the resulting radioactive cloud as a briefly seen visual effect, and though it’s on course to poison large swathes of the Near East all the way to Pakistan, this fact is ignored for the rest of the movie.
Instead, story focuses on EDI vs. crew, with Purcell easily dispatched (making this one of Foxx’s most thankless roles), and Wade’s plane damaged enough that she must eject over North Korea. For five minutes, pic is genuinely astonishing in its detailed, visceral and stratospheric depiction of Wade’s plummeting to the ground in a damaged parachute.
As Wade tries to elude capture (with pic borrowing from “Behind Enemy Lines”), the rest of “Stealth” is taken over by Lucas’ Gannon, as he tries to wrest control and have EDI re-wired by his slickster Seattle-based creator, Keith Orbit (Richard Roxburgh).
For pic to tie story in with Washington politics, actual science or authentic military strategy adds a false veneer of seriousness to what’s really an expensive CGI-stoked war movie. With characters barely sketched, the movie’s moral concerns are less important than visual effects supervisor Joel Hynek’s teeth-rattling skill at projecting cool weapons doing major damage.
Lucas shifts out of his usual supporting bad-guy stints, but he makes Gannon’s self-confidence look almost snide. Biel impresses most when talking less and running more. Shepard does better in his other life as a playwright.
As Cohen’s films continue to grow pricier, they’re both more and more humorless while looking more technically impressive, and he enjoys fine support with ace technicians like Hynek, lenser Dean Semler and production designers J. Michael Riva and Jonathan Lee. Techno music vet BT delivers a stiff military score liberally quoting from Hans Zimmer.