There are a few genres of film that rarely require filmmakers to try something new. I would argue that inspirational sports films and romcoms typically fall into the “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it” method of storytelling. The challenge is both of these films are pretty easy to make but really hard to make well, so it is incredibly refreshing to see that “Air: Courting a Legend” manages to set itself apart as an instant sports classic without needing to uproot the status quo. It is a formulaic, predictable, by the book genre film executed brilliantly, with just about everything clicking into place to elevate the film above its peers even when, at its most basic form isn’t bringing anything new to the table. Sometimes an incredibly sharp script paired with terrific performances all under the helm of an impeccable director just works. “Air” has all three in spades, and soars with laughter, heart, and inspiration to solidify itself as your dad’s new favorite sports movie.
“Air” sees Ben Affleck return to the director’s chair after almost 7 years, with a script by first time feature film screenwriter Alex Convery. The film tells the story of the early days of Nike, before they were ever synonymous with Basketball and Air Jordans. Pitted as an underdog story, “Air” follows the underfunded Basketball division losing under the weight of Converse and Adidas. Sonny (Matt Damon) becomes inspired to pin the entire division and essentially all of Nike on attainting one, single player who has never even set foot on an NBA court: Michael Jordan. With nothing but a wing and a prayer and a little insanity, Sonny and his team work to make a miracle happen, fight against all odds and navigate the business world to try and (you guessed it) court a legend before he ever was one. Powered by belief and vision, they will risk it all to do the impossible: get Michael Jordan to sign a shoe deal with Nike.
On paper, the idea of watching a small marketing division try to win a shoe contract with an athlete probably doesn’t sound all that exciting, but “Air” smartly invests in its electric performances and nostalgic production design to drum up the drama without feeling like they’re going too far off the real thing. Affleck proves once again how terrific he is behind the camera, channeling the vibes of “The Social Network” to make even the most mundane antics riveting and inspiring. There is so much that works in “Air” it’s hard to pin point any one thing that shoulders any particular part of the overall film. The script, the direction, the performances, even the nostalgia fueled 80s soundtrack that powers every moment all work in perfect tandem. Convery’s script is razor sharp, with beautifully timed laugh out loud moments and solid blend of sports marketing mumbo jumbo with an easy to follow framework. This is essentially “Moneyball” for Basketball, where the script is so accessible without being dumbed down that even if you don’t care about sports, you can’t help but feel inspired by the film’s narrative.
It is amazing what happens when your performers don’t have to work overtime to make the script work. Time and time again we see half baked scripts that demand nearly everything from our actors just to make something happen. “Air” is a breath of fresh air in that it so strong on the page it allows nearly everyone to just go for it and dig in at will. There isn’t a single weak link in the entire cast, from Damon as the lead, and supporting roles from can’t miss Viola Davis, always entertaining Jason Bateman, a fast talking but still charming Chris Tucker, and perfectly cast eccentric billionaire in Ben Affleck, a quick dramatic but effective appearance from Marlon Wayans, and scene stealing Chris Messina as the sleazy sports agent. I don’t know why Messina isn’t on more radars. Maybe he just doesn’t get enough of the right work, but every time he’s given an opportunity like this, he stands shoulder to shoulder with his peers and tends to be one of the better parts of any film. Even in something like this where everyone is equally terrific, he shines bright. His banter scenes with Damon are easily some of the funniest, most laugh out loud moments of the entire film, and I was reminded of how much I like Messina as an actor.
Damon too, delivers easily one of the best inspirational movie speeches I’ve seen in years, and instantly solidifies “Air” as one of the most quoted speeches before it even hits general audiences. It’s incredible, and Damon’s delivery paired with Affleck’s beautiful use of the camera will make it a talked about scene in the genre for decades. Affleck behind the camera is just brilliant, recreating the entire space and time with which the film is based as well as transporting you back to a time when you went to the movies to feel their magic. He is so purposeful and smart, letting this breath from its pages and keeping it as lean as it can be so his performers can shine and the story, though generic and predictable can transform into infectious joy.
And he does all this without ever showing us a film present-day Michael Jordan. Affleck wants Jordan to feel as legendary and mythical as possible; smartly keeps him as a silhouette as often as he can. “Air” is about the legacy of Jordan told through his dominance in the shoe game, not necessarily Jordan himself as a real person, and Affleck recognizing this and sticking to his guns on it is one of the reasons the film works so damn well.
“Air” is genuinely one of the first real feel good movies of the year, and regardless of how you feel about Nike and their practices or real life billionaires like Phil Knight (Affleck), it has enough charm and entertainment value to not get lost in those weeds. The film is extremely focused, and seldom ventures beyond the small lens of the huge impact signing Jordan had on everyone involved. It has no interest in getting into the business practices of corporate conglomerates outside of this singular scope, and is so well done in that regard that you don’t really feel like “Air” is a strong revisionist historical account or selectively omissive. As much as this is based on a true story and everyone is doing their best to play their real life counterparts, “Air” is clearly the fictional version of everything and everyone, and the fine line that Affleck’s direction and Convery’s script ride is precisely what makes it so likable and enjoyable.
“Air: Courting a Legend” is a predictable, dime a dozen sports story made with unmatched execution, which in turn makes all of those things that give you pause in less capable hands wonderfully familiar and inspiring. This is just a damn good time at the movies, a true crowd pleaser and a charming film that will stick with you for the right reasons and not ask you to dwell on it for too long. It is the perfect time at the movies, and I believe “Air: Courting a Legend” will have some strong legs in its run and may even fly all the way to awards season.
It may not reinvent the wheel, but it’s so damn good it doesn’t really have to. The superior execution is so good on all fronts that the film embodies its own message: a sports movie is just a sports movie, until Ben Affleck directs all his friends in one.
Or something like that. Not quite…whatever, you get it.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“Air: Courting A Legend” hits theaters April 5th. You can watch the trailer below.