Nicolas Cage is one of the movies' more inventive actors. The acting choices he's made in the array of roles he's taken in such films as "Peggy Sue Got Married," "Raising Arizona," "Moonstruck" and "Vampire's Kiss" are not always ingratiating, but they are always interesting.

So how is it that he found himself in "Fire Birds," an idiotic formula flyboy picture?

How bad is it? Call this one "Top Gun" with choppers, not an inaccurate description, except that "Fire Birds" makes "Top Gun" seem original.

Cage is the incredibly narcissistic Army helicopter pilot whose friends are gunned down by a hotshot drug-runner in the opening scenes. Naturally, he vows revenge. And he gets his chance by becoming part of a team of pilots chosen to train in the Army's Apache helicopters, ultimately to go after the drug cartel.

Tommy Lee Jones, another very good actor, has the by-the-numbers role of the tough-as-nails training officer who sees in Cage's remarkable flying talent himself as a younger man. Sean Young is another pilot-in-training who has an unhappy history with Cage.

Now, see if you can't fill in the blanks yourself:

Jones thinks Cage is the best he's ever seen, but Cage develops a physical problem he must overcome to pass his Apache flying tests. Will Jones help him? Will Cage overcome the problem? Will Cage become a hero in the climactic airborne shootout with the hotshot bad guy who killed his friends?

Young snubs Cage at every opportunity and refuses to become romantically involved with him again, but Cage pursues her. Will she succumb to Cage's charm? Will she stand up to his male chauvinism and also become part of the climactic rescue operation? Will she go off to a motel with him for a gratuitous sex scene?

If you don't know the answers to these questions, you've never seen an action movie in your life.

But predictability isn't the worst of "Fire Birds' " problems. The dialogue is so hokey you'll have a hard time not laughing out loud. Did I say dialogue? Make that pontificating soundbites.

And even the flying scenes, though beautifully photographed, have been shot in annoying closeups and edited in so jumpy a fashion you may have trouble telling who is doing what.

Perhaps the most obnoxious aspect of "Fire Birds," however, is how everybody tells Cage's character how wonderful he is at every opportunity — including Cage himself, who has a big scene in a chopper simulator where he screams "I am the greatest!" after every target he hits.

The actors try hard, but only Jones manages anything approaching sympathy; Cage seems to be doing a bizarre John Agar imitation and Young is terribly miscast, attempting to be sexy and pugnacious, even with a missile-launcher on her shoulder.

"Fire Birds" is rated PG-13 for violence and profanity, along with the aforementioned sex scene, which, by the way, is edited just as choppily as the flying scenes. You can't tell which chopper is which in the air and you can't tell what body part is what on the ground.