When a five-time MVP, six-time NBA Finals MVP, 14-time All-Star, six-time NBA champion and world-renowned face of Nike asks you to do something, you just do it. When Michael Jordan asked Ben Affleck to cast Viola Davis in his upcoming cinematic sneaker tribute, Affleck made it happen.
The star-studded “Air” tells the age-old tale of Nike’s 1984 deal with basketball legend Michael Jordan. As the film explains, Jordan had no initial interest in partnering with Nike. But with a little hard work, a dash of creativity and one barefoot CEO, the company managed to sign a deal with Jordan, creating the “Air Jordan” line for a clean $2.5 million (plus an additional percentage of every sold Air Jordan sneaker).
The film’s key players are Marketing VP Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), Marketing Director Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), Co-Founder and CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) and MJ’s mother dearest, Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis). Hardly a JV lineup, the cast delivers brilliant performances across the board — with perhaps the strongest performance coming from MJ’s hand-picked player.
A seasoned thespian, Davis brings an element of poise to the film that elevates it beyond its likeness to boys playing ’80s dress-up. Davis’ demeanor is tactful, stern, elegant — everything one might expect from the parent of such a hardworking athlete. Her character demands a seat at every business table, tirelessly advocating for her son’s fair treatment and financial prosperity. Though MJ is the brawn of this mother-son operation, it is imminently clear that Deloris is the brains.
The film plays out like a game — and there are a few different levels. The first game is between companies: Nike, Adidas and Converse. As they schedule conference calls and assess global trends, these sneaker giants battle for dominion of the shoe market. Only the company that is hippest, fittest and has the most lucrative deals will win.
The second game is between Nike employees. The audience is steered toward rooting for Marketing VP Sonny, on account of his hopeful attitude and dedication to signing MJ. Unlike Nike’s ultra-zen hipster CEO Phil, Sonny is a classic American white guy — beer belly and all. Then comes Rob, a character who is more-or-less the same as all those played by Jason Bateman: dry, sarcastic and curiously charming. And finally, in the ring is Howard White, an eccentric Nike employee acted by solo comedian Chris Tucker. Suited up and ready to rumble, these men battle over the best business method to ensure Nike’s success.
The final game is between Nike and the Jordan family. Apparently, no actor was worthy of playing the young MVP, so the Jordan team is carried solely by Davis. Engaging in a sympathetic back-and-forth throughout the film, the chemistry between Damon and Davis is commendable. Less commendable, however, is the film’s script.
It’s not that the script is bad, but it certainly isn’t on par with its subject’s genius basketball aptitude. Heavy-handed and a bit too straightforward, screenwriter Alex Convery put the story’s narrative mechanics on full display for the audience to observe. The script exemplifies an almost paint-by-numbers style of writing: beginning, middle, climax and end. To make matters worse, the in-betweens of these plot devices feel empty and contrived — for all of its well-crafted battles, brawls and baskets, “Air” lacks the key ingredient of integrity.
Thankfully for audiences, the faults of “Air” are easy to overlook. Affleck’s directing strikes the perfect balance between humor and heart; Robert Richardson’s cinematography is dynamic and engaging; and the production design brilliantly embodies 1980s nostalgia. “Air” might not be groundbreaking cinema, but it’s nevertheless a fun watch. Whether you like basketball, sneakers, or you just love the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck bromance, you’re sure to find “Air” a slam dunk.