`Iron Eagle Iii': They Can't Stay Out Of Those Flying Machines

X 1/2 "Aces: Iron Eagle III," with Louis Gossett Jr., Paul Freeman, Horst Buchholz, Christopher Casenove, Sonny Chiba, Mitchell Ryan and Rachel McLish. Directed by John Glen, from a screenplay by Kevin Elders. Alderwood, Aurora Village, Everett Mall, Factoria, Gateway, Lewis & Clark, Newmark, Oak Tree, Overlake, Totem Lake, Valley Drive-in. "R" - restricted, due to profanity, violence. --------------------------------------------------------------- The quaintly nostalgic but patently absurd idea behind "Aces: Iron Eagle III" is to pit four vintage World War II aircraft against a batch of high-tech jet fighters to see which group wins. After all, says one of the old-time fliers, "It's the man, not the machine."

It's a nifty what-if scenario that aviation buffs will thrive on; given the choice between an F-16 fighter or the sleek lines of a well-preserved twin-tailed P-38 Lightning, true romantics will pick the old wings without hesitation. Veterans will heartily agree: Those were the days, and the old prop jobs still inspire a longing for the skies that no jet can match.

Of course, none of this stops "Aces" from being laughably bogus in the story department. Having nothing to do with its pair of "Iron Eagle" predecessors, this one has Louis Gossett Jr. reprising his role as Col. "Chappy" Sinclair, an Air Force ace who now moonlights as an air-show pilot, flying his gorgeous P-38 in recreated WWII air battles with his pals Leichman (Horst Buchholz), a German in a Messerschmitt; Palmer (Christopher Casenove), a Brit in a Spitfire; and Horikoshi (the thickly accented Sonny Chiba), a Japanese non-ace who ultimately proves his honor in a Zero.

Their opportunity to test their mettle comes when Chappy discovers a huge cocaine ring operating on his Air Force base, and is barred from investigation by the base's corrupt general (Mitchell Ryan). With the help of a Peruvian beauty named Anna (bodybuilder Rachel McLish), Chappy & Co. take their museum-quality fighters to Peru, where they plan an air assault on a not-so-secret cocaine base operated by Kleiss (Paul Freeman, the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" baddie), a Nazi notorious for having killed his own brother. (He's got the facial scar; now all he needs is a monocle, jodhpurs and a long cigarette holder.)

Most comic books these days possess more sophisticated plot and dialogue, but "Aces" won't disappoint those who seek this stuff out. It's a hilarious mix of old-war sentiment and drug-war zeal, in which a rainbow coalition (including a ghetto homeboy named Tee Vee) uses low-tech hardware with high-tech fittings. If it weren't so earnest, it would qualify as satire, right down to the two-bit orchestration of its gung-ho score.

As for McLish - she of the steroidal features and serious pumpitude - her "acting" debut virtually guarantees a long career in straight-to-video action flicks. The camera caresses her impressive physique, and her skill with weaponry is sufficiently poised (it's got to be tough to wield a pair of 50mm machine guns and not break a nail). As for her performance . . . let's just say Vanna White has nothing to worry about.

Which brings us back to the airplanes. The film features some dandy airborne action (director John Glen is a veteran of James Bond movies), and it doesn't pretend to be anything more than the no-brainer it is. As for that man-vs.-machine contest, well, why do you think they called it "Aces"?