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'Stealth' can't hide a major flaw

''Stealth" is a pretty fair military-hardware action movie until you start thinking about it -- at which point it turns incredibly sour in your mouth. I can therefore recommend it to any and all audiences lacking higher brain functions. Sea cucumbers, perhaps. Ones waving American flags.

I certainly can't recommend it to fans of Jamie Foxx, because the best actor Oscar winner for ''Ray" is stuck in the deeply secondary role of the hero's best friend. Since ''Stealth" was filmed before the Academy Awards, Foxx can take some solace in the fact that he won't ever have to accept this kind of jive part again.

As for Josh Lucas and Jessica Biel as Navy stealth-fighter jet pilots in love with flying and (in a don't-ask-don't-tell sort of way) each other, they exhibit markedly less personality than EDI (pronounced ''Eddie"), the unmanned computerized drone plane that has just become the fourth member of their elite squadron. EDI speaks in the friendly metallic tones of HAL 9000's grandson and he's equipped with the latest advances in artificial intelligence. Artificial or not, this gives him a leg up on everyone in the film.

Lieutenants Ben Gannon (Lucas), Kara Wade (Biel), and Henry Purcell (Foxx) are not happy about bringing Robo-plane along on their tactical missions, but the project is the baby of their commanding officer, Captain George Cummings (Sam Shepard), who has that win-at-all-costs evil glint in his eye. W.D. Richter's script even makes a feint toward ethical debate: ''I just don't think war should become a video game," says Ben, upon which Cummings reminds him about the body bags. A scene or two later, Kara insists that ''if it's programmed by moral people, it'll be moral," but since she subsequently announces she has to go ''pee-pee," mature strategic analysis may not be the character's strong suit.

Anyway, such conundrums are moot, since the director is Rob Cohen of ''XXX" and ''The Fast and the Furious," and he has stuff to blow up. After the squadron's successful strike on a terrorist cell in Rangoon, EDI is hit by lightning, has its AI scrambled, and becomes jealous of Ben's prowess in the sky. The drone plane turns on the others and heads out to blow up a warlord's stockpile of moldering Russian nukes; Ben scrambles to reel the stray back in while Cummings plots how best to save his career. While ''Stealth" offers a superficial portrait of the ''new Navy" -- white, black, female -- Lucas quickly becomes the movie's blue-eyed top gun, while Foxx is sidelined and Biel's Kara has to bail out of her stalled Talon fighter. Over North Korea -- where else?

The sequence in which she plummets to earth, dodging the fireball remnants of her jet, is a pulse-quickening visual marvel, by far the strongest moment in the film. All the action sequences, in fact, are everything summer-movie fans could hope for: digitized bursts of retinal overstimulation that play like -- you guessed it -- a video game. EDI's in-cockpit taste for Incubus songs, written by the band for the film, provides the requisite music to pump fists by, although the duet with the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde over the final credits comes as a shock. Chrissie, honey, did you even read the script? (As for Shepard's participation, presumably there are college bills to pay, and revivals of ''True West" just aren't doing the trick.)

The issue isn't the quality of the action scenes, because these days that's mostly what Hollywood is good for. The issue isn't even the lurking fears of Defense Department ordnance run amok that ''Stealth" purports to address. The issue is that this is exactly the sort of movie we don't need right now: a delusional military fantasy in which collateral damage doesn't exist.

That initial strike involves dropping an ''implosion bomb" on an apartment building in downtown Rangoon that's miraculously occupied only by the terrorists; the cute kids next door remain unhurt. Later, when EDI's assault on the warlord causes radioactive dust to drift over a nearby village, Kara calls in the medics to relieve the terrified villagers -- with what? Gatorade? -- and that's the last we hear of that. Oh, a few North Korean soldiers get killed, but they're as one-dimensional as Purcell's willowy Thai girlfriend (Jaipetch Toonchalong), who nods and smiles uncomprehendingly as he mumbles about the human cost of war.

Am I spoiling the party? Harshing the high-flying flyboy buzz? Tough. For a movie to pretend, in the face of the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi men, women, and children directly or indirectly caused by our presence there, that we can wage war without anyone really getting hurt isn't naive, or wishful thinking, or a jim-dandy way to spend a Saturday night at the movies. It's an obscenity.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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