Review: ‘The Air Up There’

Working a bit too hard to send the crowd into a frenzy, the action in this basketball-oriented yarn isn't exactly fantastic, but it is mildly entertaining. Still, with the limited star power in its lineup, Hollywood Pictures should have a hard time running up much of a box office score, though this Interscope production figures to shoot a higher percentage in homevideo.

Working a bit too hard to send the crowd into a frenzy, the action in this basketball-oriented yarn isn’t exactly fantastic, but it is mildly entertaining. Still, with the limited star power in its lineup, Hollywood Pictures should have a hard time running up much of a box office score, though this Interscope production figures to shoot a higher percentage in homevideo. Novelist and first-time screenwriter Max Apple may not have written a movie before, but he’s certainly seen a lot of them, as this story of a college coach seeking a prized recruit in Africa contains elements ranging from “The Gods Must Be Crazy” to “A Man Called Horse” to every basketball movie you’ve ever seen.

Still, “The Air Up There” isn’t quite as stale as the number of cliches it launches, nor as condescending as it could have been in its portrayal of a white savior leading a bunch of native people to the promised land.

Rather, it’s simply a traditional fish-out-of-water tale — where the fish learns from as well as teaches his charges — drawing its inspiration from African players like Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon (who hails from Nigeria) or the baseball scout who stumbled upon former Dodger pitching ace Fernando Valenzuela in Mexico.

Kevin Bacon plays Jimmy Dolan, a one-time college great who’s now an assistant coach at his alma mater, St. Joseph’s. Having let his pride result in the loss of a blue-chip recruit (in perhaps the film’s most effective sequence), Jimmy has a revelation when he sees a tape of the 6-foot-10-inch answer to the school’s prayers and takes off to Kenya after him.

Unfortunately, Saleh (newcomer Charles Gitonga Maina, who possesses Michael Jordan’s leaping ability and Magic Johnson’s smile) has his own problems, since his tribe, the Winabi, is being pushed off its land by evil developer Nyaga (Mabutho “Kid” Sithole).

Saleh’s father, the tribe’s chief Urudu (Winston Ntshona), objects to his son leaving to try and cash in on his basketball prowess, but through a series of reasonably preposterous circumstances ultimately proposes a basketball game between Nyaga’s team and the village to settle matters, with Jimmy acting as player/coach.

Director Paul M. Glaser (the former TV star whose directing credits include “The Running Man” and “The Cutting Edge”) brings a certain energy to the predictable proceedings — aided immeasurably by cinematographer Dick Pope and composer David Newman — that captures some of the beauty and majesty of the African wilderness.

Unfortunately, the pic doesn’t exactly reach for the lights in its efforts to entertain, also relying on ample lower-brow comedy, from Jimmy suffering the “Winabi trots” to enduring local culinary delights.

In addition, the final hoops showdown (which even borrows a page from “The Longest Yard”) isn’t as jaw-dropping as it should be, particularly since the proceedings are about as suspenseful as a Harlem Globetrotters game.

Bacon does a solid job, displaying Jimmy’s growth toward considering goals higher than the Final Four, and Maina and others exhibit real charm as the tribesmen. Hoop-aholics will also note former UCLA standout Nigel Miguel (previously seen in “White Men Can’t Jump”) and Ilo Mutombo (elder brother of NBA center Dikembe) in key roles.

Other tech credits are well-drilled, with lensing in South Africa, Kenya, Toronto and Vancouver. From a marketing standpoint, pic also deserves kudos for its clever title and logo, the prominently displayed word “Air” doubtless capitalizing on the celebrity of a certain Mr. Jordan.

The Air Up There

Production

A Buena Vista Pictures release of a Hollywood Pictures presentation of an Interscope Communications/PolyGram Filmed Entertainment production in association with Nomura Babcock & Brown and Longview Entertainment. Produced by Ted Field, Rosalie Swedlin, Robert W. Cort. Executive producers, Lance Hool, Scott Kroopf. Co-producer, Conrad Hool. Directed by Paul M. Glaser. Screenplay, Max Apple.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Dick Pope; editor, Michael E. Polakow; music, David Newman; production design, Roger Hall; art direction, Leigh Ridley, Hans van der Zanden; set decoration, Karen Mary Brookes; costume design, Hope Hanafin; sound (Dolby), David Lee; assistant director, Martin Walters; basketball technical advisor, Bob McAdoo; casting, Mali Finn, Donn Finn. Reviewed at the Avco Cinema Center, L.A., Jan. 3, 1994. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 108 min.

With

Jimmy Dolan - Kevin Bacon
Saleh - Charles Gitonga Maina
Sister Susan - Yolanda Vazquez
Urudu - Winston Ntshona
Nyaga - Mabutho (Kid) Sithole
Ray Fox - Sean McCann
Father O'Hara - Dennis Patrick
Mifundo - Ilo Mutombo
Halawi - Nigel Miguel
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