Al Columbato (Nicolas Cage) and Birdy (Matthew Modine) became friends in high school amongst the slums of South Philadelphia despite the extreme difference in their personalities – Al being the popular and athletic extrovert, Birdy the antisocial “weirdo” introvert obsessed with birds, especially with flight.
Dressed in a ridiculous feather suit, Birdy climbs – with Al in terrified tow – to the very top of a power station. Hanging over the edge to catch pigeons, he slips and ends up clinging to a gutter around a hundred feet above the ground.
Desperately, Al tries to pull him back. Birdy, though, is exhilarated. “You’re going to jump?!” asks Al, incredulously. “No, Al, I’m going to fly” replies Birdy and does so – plunging gracefully through the air and landing on a heap of sand – where he sustains only minor injuries.
His first attempt at man-powered flight is a wacky affair, conducted from the front of a grocer’s delivery bicycle (pedalled by the faithful Al) on top of a massive rubbish tip, to the strains of the late 50s Ritchie Valens classic, La Bamba.
It ends in a pool of filthy water at the bottom of a garbage-strewn slope. Briefly though, Birdy flew.
What really clips Birdy’s wings is the Vietnam War. Al and Birdy complete their service of duty in and return to the States. Al has sustained serious physical injuries which require major reconstructive surgery on his face. Birdy, however, returns from Vietnam emotionally scarred.
He was missing in action for one month. He has not spoken since he was found. He ends up squatting, naked in a barred room in an Army psychiatric hospital, convinced he is a bird.
Despite his own medical issues, Al travels to the institution to see if he can assist in getting Birdy out of his near-comatose state.
Eventually, he does, but not in an expected way. In the end, Birdy and Al erupt into violence against an institution – the Army, America in general – whose only interest in making Birdy better is to get him back under control.
They flee to the roof where to Al’s horror, Birdy leaps again. But he doesn’t fly and he doesn’t die. Instead, La Bamba plays.
Modine and Cage are both superb – Cage manic and bemused, Modine tight, tense and obsessive – although they are both too old for the early scenes.