Halfway through "Stealth" -- a big new action movie about three gung-ho U.S. Navy pilots and an ultra-computerized, pilotless plane named EDI (for "Extreme Deep Invader") -- there's a conversation between statuesque hero Ben Gannon (Josh Lucas) and the plane's computer. As the talk goes on, the voice of the robot plane begins to remind you irresistibly of the tense dialogues between Keir Dullea's Capt. Dave Bowman and HAL, the psychotic computer of Stanley Kubrick's brainy science-fiction masterpiece "2001: a Space Odyssey."
That "2001" reference only throws "Stealth's" flaws into higher relief by spotlighting the silliness of the story and the madly overscaled action. Though this is a better picture than Cohen's last two high-tech action movies, the same things are wrong with it. On the surface, it seems like another video game movie, the kind that keeps expensively blowing up in your face for two hours. In some ways, that's exactly what it is, though it's a movie psychologically divided against itself.
It's a big, roaring action film about crackerjack Navy pilots who run up against their own superplane and their overreaching superior during a series of secret raids in North Korea and Myanmar. And it's jam-packed with technology, machismo and explosions. At the center of its miniature Armageddon are three best-buddy pilots: perfectionist Ben, stalwart babe Kara Wade (Biel) and grinning Casanova Henry Purcell (Foxx).
Flying seems to make them all randy. Kara and Ben have the hots for each other, while Henry chases every other beautiful female in sight. But more than hormones will soon be driving them. Cohen imagines EDI, which has been very well rendered by his technicians, as the pet project of their wildly gung-ho commanding officer, Capt. George Cummings (Shepard), a glib bully who sends them from their Nevada base into a North Korean raid, to strike a dangerous war lord in a crowded city. Later they wind up in Myanmar and a small war, and as the action heats up, EDI (pronounced "Eddie") begins to descend into HAL-like insubordination and psychosis.
The seemingly perfect machine, he starts disobeying orders and arguing with Ben. A masterpiece of science, he starts acting like a hot-dogging rebel. And soon, human lives, the good name of the Navy and the fate of the entire planet are hanging in the balance -- while there's also a battle to win, a scandal to expose and a love affair between Ben and Kara to wrap up.
It's all pretty senseless, and as W.D. Richter ("Buckaroo Banzai") writes it, you might almost suspect the movie is parodying itself. But in the midst of all this Gotterdammerung hardware and heavy-metal razzle-dazzle, Cohen keeps borrowing directly from Kubrick. How do you figure a big summer military action film that starts off like "Top Gun" but whose most obvious influences are "Dr. Strangelove" and "2001: A Space Odyssey"?
What are Foxx, the Oscar-winning star of "Ray," and Shepard, the great American playwright and the star of "Days of Heaven," doing in a movie like this? It might seem a grand musical stretch for Foxx to tackle the role of Henry Purcell after masterfully capturing Ray Charles, except that this isn't Purcell the great English composer, but rather Purcell the Navy flyboy stud. The performance, while amiable enough, is a waste of talent -- and, if Lucas' seems better, it's perhaps because he has less talent to waste.
Shepard, meanwhile, swaggers amusingly as the villain Cummings, and the other actors (including Joe Morton and Richard Roxburgh) are pleasant enough. But they can't really make much of the mad rambles of EDI and the vaulting excesses of the special-effects team.
Cohen, 56, achieved his movie success relatively late, but his errors sometimes suggest the follies of youth. He mounts a lavish production, casts good actors, hires a good writer (Richter) and tries interesting angles -- as he did when he was making smaller bad films like 1980's "A Small Circle of Friends" -- but he also gets overly tangled up in technology and blind to logic.
"Stealth" is a movie with grander ambitions than the average actioner, and certainly grander than anything Cohen attempted in "The Fast and the Furious" and "XXX." But though "Stealth's" strengths are obvious -- high-tech marvels and a good cast -- so are its flaws. At its worst moments, a mad robot seems to have taken over the movie, too.
Directed by Rob Cohen; written by W.D. Richter; photographed by Dean Semler; edited by Stephen Rivkin; production designed by J. Michael Riva and Jonathan Lee; visual effects supervised by Joel Hynek; music by BT ; produced by Laura Ziskin, Mike Medavoy and Neal Moritz. A Columbia Pictures release; opens Friday, July 29. Running time: 2:01. MPAA rating: PG-13 (intense action, some violence, brief strong language and innuendo).
Lt. Ben Gannon -- Josh Lucas
Lt. Kara Wade -- Jessica Biel
Lt. Henry Purcell -- Jamie Foxx
Capt. George Cummings -- Sam Shepard
Capt. Dick Marshfield -- Joe Morton
Kieth Orbit -- Richard Roxburgh