'The Air Up There' is lighter than air, but the formula still works

January 07, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"The Air Up There" is the sort of movie that hardly gets made any more: expertly choreographed piffle.

It is lighter than a no-cal souffle and as manipulative as a crossword puzzle, but it also shows why formulas become formulas: because they work and because they're pretty much critic-proof.

Ultimately, this is the formula about the Big Game. It has all the high-church hallmarks of the genre: the hopeless team hastily assembled, the stakes jimmied up much higher than a normal athletic contest, the early lead by the opponents, the injury of a key player, the arrival of a last-minute sleeper, and the final countdown as the time leaks off the clock and our heroes, down by one, drive for a winning score.

Of course this is much more interesting when it happens for real, as it did, say, in the Raiders-Broncos game last Sunday, a true lollapalooza. Still, Paul Michael Glaser delivers the requisite amount of ersatz thrills to make "The Air Up There" easy enough to sit through.

And it's got Africa. Show me Africa and I'll sit through it twice or maybe three times: show me Kenya's savannas with bounding game, ocher mountains, ricky-ticky little towns, buses loaded with people and chickens, a wart hog or two, maybe even a he-lion dozing in the dirt after having supped on wildebeest and I'm in heaven.

Kevin Bacon, with that feral Irish city face, plays an assistant coach named Jimmy Dolan at some northeast basketball factory of a school (it's called St. Joe's, but it could be any Big East team) who happens to spy out of focus in a video from a church missionary a big man with the moves of a cat. Of course the movie is about 20 years behind reality in this aspect: African players have been emigrating to the United States for that long and one of them -- Hakeem Olajuwon -- currently dominates in the NBA.

Anyway, Jimmy heads out on a last-minute recruiting mission, only to find more than he bargained for. Of course these are politically enlightened times, so there's no guff about a white man bringing civilization to "primitive natives"; instead, even in the deepest bush, he finds a highly evolved and vividly evoked tribal culture, as sophisticated as his own and as complex, nuanced and intractable. The Winabe may be fictitious, but screenwriter Max Apple has done a fairly deft job of both dramatizing and respecting them.

Jimmy finds Saleh (Charles Gitonga Maina), an engaging 6 foot 10 incher who read Sports Illustrated and watches ESPN and can engineer a 360-degree double pump thunder dunk with the greatest of ease. But he is, alas, a prince of his people and so freighted with royal responsibility that he can't head out to America, unless Jimmy can con him into coming. Much of the movie is frivolous fish-out-of-water stuff, with Bacon's Dolan, a typical city wise guy, trying to cut it in rural Africa with people who regard him as some sort of Martian.

But the movie has some trouble lumbering into the big-game finale; this involves a rural African gangster (played by charismatic Mabutho "Kid" Sithole) who's trying to steal the Winabes' land for copper rights and who also has his own semi-pro basketball team. The movie gets to its setup way too late: a bet riding on a game between the Winabes and this fellow's arrogant semi-pros.

One interesting late 20th century touch unimaginable in earlier films: Instead of initiating the black men into the ways of the white world, the movie turns on the white man being initiated into the ways of the black as Dolan -- has someone been watching "Dances with Wolves"? -- actually becomes Winabe by ritual. Indeed, the subtext of the film is Dolan's redemption, as he's converted from huckster of flesh to true believer.

Unfortunately, Bacon, who has to take the court a few times, isn't a convincing jock and the cuts to his stunt double are clumsy. And though Maina is effusive, he also lacks a big-time basketball body. He makes Manute Bol look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. The game action, however, is well worked out, with an assist from ex-NBA great Bob McAdoo, who obviously knows a little about these things.

"The Air Up There"

Starring Kevin Bacon

Directed by Paul Michael Glaser

Released by Hollywood Pictures


** 1/2

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