Michael Jordan is such an enduring cultural figure that even the finer details of his unparalleled legacy can be the focus point for a sports biopic. Enter Air, which recounts the true tale of the bidding war between Nike, Adidas, and Converse for an exclusive shoe deal with then-rookie Michael Jordan. If Netflix had a miniseries about Jordan’s rise to basketball superstardom, the events of this movie would likely be condensed into one episode but at the hands of director Ben Affleck, the business deal is unpacked breezily over 112 minutes. Thanks to a deep roster of talented familiar faces and a quippy script from Alex Convery, the film takes what could be considered an unremarkable story of corporate jostling and makes it go down as easy as a swish from the baseline.
Matt Damon stars as Sonny Vaccaro, an executive at Nike desperate to surpass Adidas and Converse in market share for shoes worn by superstar NBA players. His efforts take him to the top, where he asks CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) for more funds to bankroll new recruits but is told that he has to make it work with their current allocation. Sonny’s desk is across the hall from the tape archive room, in which he seems to spend more time than his actual desk chair. While watching footage of Jordan making a championship-winning shot at UNC, Vaccaro becomes convinced that he’s their guy and convinces Nike Basketball VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) that they should spend the budget for 3 players on just one instead. Even though Jordan is rumored to have a deal with Adidas, Vaccaro doesn’t give up and visits Jordan’s parents Deloris (Viola Davis) and James (Julius Tennon) to plead for a meeting.
Air is the most concerted effort so far from Amazon Studios to make one of their films a theatrical event, as opposed to releasing it on Prime Video with little to no fanfare. Opening with Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” over the production logos into the credits, there’s a sense that this is almost certainly the most expensive project that they’ve distributed and is their attempt to make ripples at the box office. Certainly no expense was spared when it comes to the music licensing, as the film is packed with 1980s hits from “Born In The USA” to “Can’t Fight This Feelings”; there’s even room for not one but two Violent Femmes cuts. Even though the needle drops aren’t cheap, the majority of the budget assuredly went to the all-star talent in front of the camera.
Much of Air‘s affability comes from the deep bench of household names in the ensemble cast, which also includes Marlon Wayans and Chris Messina. The long limelight-absent Chris Tucker even steals a few scenes as Howard White, who became the VP of the Air Jordan brand and is a close friend of Jordan’s in real life. Thankfully, there aren’t any scenes of contrived drama where actors strain a muscle trying to compete for their own Oscar Moment. Like the businesspeople at Nike in 1984, everyone here is doing their part to make this deal work. Damon and Davis are especially good in their scenes together, where their characters slowly develop each others’ trust, even though there are financially-related motives underneath their seemingly innocuous discourse.
Air is working from the same playbook drawn up by sports business movies like Jerry Maguire and Moneyball but it simply doesn’t have the dramatic inertia to put it in their company. Even with suspension of disbelief intact, the outcome of this story feels arbitrary and inevitable from the get-go. We get very little first-hand insight into how Adidas or Converse fought for Jordan and the film lacks an antagonistic pressure that would make this story feel like it had to be seen to be believed. It’s also difficult to get around the fact that despite the historical significance of the Air Jordan line, the movie is ultimately a commercial for the Nike brand. Corporate interests aside, Air is an accessorial but amicable bit of sports fluff from another streamer trying to get their piece of the Hollywood pie.
Score – 3/5
More movies coming this weekend:
Coming only to theaters is The Super Mario Bros. Movie, an animated adventure starring Chris Pratt and Anya Taylor-Joy which brings the video game characters to the big screen as Mario and Peach must rescue Luigi from the clutches of King Koopa.
Also playing only in theaters is Paint, a comedy starring Owen Wilson and Michaela Watkins about a soft-spoken public television painter who feels the heat of competition when the station hires a younger and more talented painter for a new program.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is On A Wing And A Prayer, a faith-based survival film starring Dennis Quaid and Heather Graham which tells the true story of a pharmacist who must fly his family to safety after their pilot dies unexpectedly mid-flight.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup