Rob Cohen, he of The Fast and the Furious and xXx infamy, is a mini-Michael Bay, an engineer of dim-witted, belligerent, testosterone-fueled summer spectacles that visually and aurally assault with all the subtlety of a sonic boom. His latest, Stealth, doesn’t stray from this tried-and-true juvenilely aggro blueprint, and its story—about three Naval jet pilots whose jobs are put in jeopardy by their fourth wingman, a completely A.I.-driven warplane named EDI—reflects Cohen’s own aesthetic modus operandi of replacing all traces of humanity with digitized artificiality. The director’s fixation on CG-sculpted aerial dogfights and wholesale disinterest in character, plotting, or conversations which last longer than two snappy quips are the driving forces behind this melding of 2001 and Iron Eagle, in which ultra-cocky Naval flyboys must deal with the thinking, learning, emotional EDI once it’s hit by lightening and, à la Short Circuit, develops an unpredictable, independent mind of its own.
The film’s heroic trio includes an arrogant, rebellious leader (Josh Lucas), a sexy babe who always considers the potential collateral damage of her tasks (Jessica Biel), and a thoroughly underdeveloped sidekick (Jamie Foxx) whose primary talents involve womanizing and, in a dismal reminder of Ray, wearing dark sunglasses and swaying to soul music. Their solitary personality traits or inter-crew dynamics, however, matter for naught in this frenzied, somersaulting fusion of whiplash editing and slow-motion explosions, the latter of which exemplify the film’s fetishistic infatuation with twisted metal and debris-littered destruction. Computer screen info flies by at DSL speeds matched only by the swiftness of Foxx’s unceremonious exit, and though Lucas’s belief in the superiority of man over machine leads him to ironically utter “I just don’t think war should become a video game,” Stealth is nothing if not an ultra-kinetic, sensory-pulverizing cinematic updating of Sega’s classic After Burner with Biel’s mathematically perfect, bikini-clad assets thrown in for good measure.
Screenwriter W.D. Richter uses Tajikistan and North Korea as settings for the squadron’s top-secret assignments to destroy nukes, scud missiles and other assorted WMDs, and an early shot of a crumpling, collapsing high-rise—though not as purely beautiful as a later scene involving an airborne halo of fire created by EDI—attempts to partake in 9/11 image summoning. Yet any resemblance to realistic issues about terrorism or first-strike ethics is shattered the moment Biel’s humanistic aviator attempts a last-second mission abort after realizing that the fallout from eradicating an Eastern European warlord’s four atomic warheads (with the potential to kill countless millions) might also harm a few thousand nearby villagers. In a recurring piece of vapid banter about why EDI’s inclusion in their ménage à trois is dangerous, Foxx explains that the number four is unlucky. As my solitary grade for this leaden, crashing catastrophe indicates, so is the number one.