Active Stealth (1999): Top Gun

Featuring a few words with the director himself, Matty spotlights Fred Olen Ray’s ace military hardware actioner.

After hooking up with nightclub magnate Elie Samaha in late 1997, Ashok Amritraj and Andrew Stevens began winding down Royal Oaks Entertainment with an eye to making — quote, unquote — ‘classier’ fare than the VHS and cable potboilers that they were known for. Attracted by the Miramax inspired idea of independent producers luring in stars with the promise of helping them get their pet projects off the ground, Samaha, Amritraj and Stevens launched Trademark Films, which they quickly renamed Franchise Pictures. Franchise’s MO was simple: they’d pick up a vanity vehicle in turnaround at another, bigger studio and procure the talent attached for a massively reduced rate under the pretence of the star being able to realise their art. A canny plan on paper: get the star, get the movie, and watch the tills ring. However, in between bankrolling Driven (2001) for Sylvester Stallone, The Pledge (2001) for Jack Nicholson and Sean Penn, and the infamous Battlefield Earth (2000) for John Travolta (the film that ultimately led to the shingle’s demise amidst an investigation by the FBI’s fraud squad), Franchise needed to find a way to keep the lights on. As such, a straight-to-video subdivision was born (or relaunched depending how you look at it): Phoenician Entertainment, which repurposed the name Samaha operated under when he co-produced films with Avi Lerner’s Nu Image. 

Having already proved an asset for Amritraj and Stevens — for whom he tackled erotic thrillers, family flicks, shoot-’em-ups and, even, a western — it was only a matter of time before Fred Olen Ray was employed by Phoenician, particularly as the director’s last wave of Royal Oaks features were the exact kind of military hardware pics that Phoenician’s financiers were after (see: Stevens’ Crash Dive (1996)).

“That was a period when the German market was so huge that they kind of dictated what we made,” recalls Ray. “It was a financing company called Intertainment AG, and they’d send some notes on a script and the word I’d get from Andrew Stevens was that if they made a suggestion, you’d do well to take it. So I said, “OK, I got it”. Whenever I’d get anything from Intertainment I’d say, “Whatever. Whatever it is you want to do is fine” and I’d go and do it. So first they wanted submarine films and then they wanted stuff about jets. The films themselves were made by what we call a production service company. They weren’t actually made by Phoenician or Franchise: they wrote the cheques and doled out the budget, but they were made by us for them.”

While the majority of Ray’s Phoenician output arrived post-2000, his first was the brilliant ACTIVE STEALTH, which was shot in early 1999.

A polished and stylish film, the technical sheen to this rip-snorting adventure — a kind of loose remake of Ray’s earlier action epic, Commando Squad (1987) — is astounding. Aesthetically Active Stealth is the culmination of everything that worked visually in the Ray joints that immediately preceded it: the gritty textures of Fugitive Rage (1996); the kinetic pizzazz of Inferno (1997); the close quarters immersiveness of Rapid Assault (1997); and the slickness of Counter Measures (1998). Best, though, is that Ray is afforded enough cash to go haywire with the set pieces. Deafening gunfire, slo-mo explosions, helicopters, and a stealth fighter leased from the producers of TV series JAG — Ray has all the toys at his disposal and delivers adrenaline-pumping spectacle with wit and bombast.  

Of course, Active Stealth’s budget — within Phoenician’s usual $1.2 to $1.4million range — is peanuts by Hollywood standards. As such, the helmer draws upon a raft of craft-based trickery to ratchet up the film’s already hearty production values, amplifying them with a splash of CGI, cleverly conceived miniatures (incredibly, several shots involve a stealth fighter model kit that Ray himself picked up from a hobby shop), and the form mandated use of stock footage culled from several U.S. army videos and movies such as Iron Eagle (1986) and Clear and Present Danger (1994)

“With the hardware pictures you’ve got to write the scripts around what you know you can achieve,” explains Ray. “And you’ve got to plan everything around the stock footage that you’re going to use, and you have to really study it to make sure you can match it up otherwise you’ll take people right out of the show… Another thing is that it’s really hard to tell a story when you have all the stock going on. You don’t just want it to be things happening for the sake of it and this and that, and I think I got the balance right with Active Stealth. All the jet stuff actually tells the story.”

What also helps is that Active Stealth’s script — by Ray mainstay Steve Latshaw — is extremely well written. As a director Ray seldom gets credit for how skilled he is with large casts. Armed Response (1986), Cyclone (1987), Spirits (1990), Evil Toons (1992), Bikini Drive-In (1995), Hybrid (1997), the bulk of his recent women’s thrillers and Christmas caperseven an otherwise painful misstep like Mob Boss (1990) demonstrates Ray’s flair for juggling multiple performers and their characters’ dramatic arcs. Ray is an ensemble filmmaker — a B-movie Robert Altman — and Active Stealth is easily among the helmer’s greatest ensemble pieces; a fact aided in no small part by Latshaw’s stirring focus on character. From Daniel Baldwin’s mournful army ranger and Tim Abell’s cocky redneck pilot, to Joe Lala’s drug baron and his ruthless henchman (wrestler Terry Funk — former grappler Ray’s then tag-team partner), the grunts and their foes feel real. You want Baldwin’s squad to succeed, and you want Lala and Funk to get the crowd-pleasing comeuppance they deserve.

Active Stealth was released on U.S. tape by Paramount on 11th July 2000. It started a successful run on HBO the following December and was subsequently issued on R1 disc by Key DVD (in conjunction with 20th Century Fox Home Video). Criminally, the film has never received a physical release here in the U.K. Thankfully, it frequently screens on Freeview and various streaming platforms.

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