Director: Ben Affleck
Cast: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Viola Davis, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker, Jay Mohr, Marlon Wayans, Matthew Maher
Runtime: 1 hr 52 mins
Rating: NC16 (Coarse Language)
Released By: Warner Bros
Opening Day: 6 April 2023
Synopsis: From award-winning director Ben Affleck, AIR reveals the unbelievable game-changing partnership between a then-rookie Michael Jordan and Nike's fledgling basketball division which revolutionized the world of sports and contemporary culture with the Air Jordan brand. This moving story follows the career-defining gamble of an unconventional team with everything on the line, the uncompromising vision of a mother who knows the worth of her son’s immense talent, and the basketball phenom who would become the greatest of all time.
Who would have thought that a movie about how Nike came to create Air Jordan basketball shoes could be this entertaining? Certainly not us, before we stepped into the cinema to see Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort, which also sees him step in front of the camera as Nike CEO Phil Knight, not least because the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
But Affleck, who works from a well-judged script by first-time screenwriter Alex Convery, has created what we think will be one of our favourite films of the year, a funny, moving and surprisingly poignant David-and-Goliath tale about how the upstart Oregon-based footwear company with the swoosh logo beat out its deeper-pocketed rivals Converse and Adidas to score a game-changing partnership with a then-rookie Michael Jordan to revolutionise the world of sports and contemporary culture.
At the heart of that story is the company’s veteran talent scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), whom we are introduced to working college games while nursing a compulsive gambling habit. A snappy montage set to Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ catapults us right into the 1980s era; besides Rolodexes, Rubik’s Cubes and Reagan, it was also shortly after Nike had gone public, and despite leading in the athletic shoe market was flailing in the basketball arena.
Compared to other executives at Nike, Sonny possessed a keen understanding of the game and its players, and rather than accept their lot going after the lower-ranked players, decides to persuade his colleagues – including marketing executive Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and field rep Howard White (Chris Tucker) – to bet their entire budget on signing Jordan. It is Sonny though who does most of the heavy-lifting, in particular flying out to North Carolina to meet with Jordan’s mother Deloris (Viola David) to ask that she give Nike a chance, despite the vehement objections of Jordan’s potty-mouthed agent David Falk (Chris Messina).
It is also credit to Sonny that the Air Jordans are what they are; had it not been for Sonny’s gumption, the Nike shoe wizard Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) would not have had the derring-do to design them in all its prototypical Chicago Bulls red-and-black glory, especially given how NBA regulations require at least 50% of the shoes to be white. Instead of getting the person to fit the shoe, Sonny was sure from the very beginning that he wanted the shoe to be built around the person and therefore to represent what Jordan embodied.
Even though there is never a doubt if Sonny would succeed in convincing the Jordans to place their future with Nike, the fact that the to- and fro- remains just as engaging is credit to Affleck and his superb ensemble cast. Damon is at his most affable and relatable; Bateman switches effortlessly between being quippy and sincere; Tucker has lost none of his motormouthed comic gusto despite being away from the big screen for seven years; and last but not least, Davis is triumphant channeling maternal fire and feeling into a standout supporting act. The chemistry between the actors is extremely rewarding, whether the well-worn rapport between Damon and Affleck or the heartfelt, thoughtful exchanges between Damon and Davis.
Affleck’s achievement behind the camera is impressive on many counts. Besides the performances he draws out from the cast, Affleck’s grasp of pacing and poignancy is sharp and confident. He keeps the energy of the movie pulsing from start to finish, and finds unexpected pathos in ruminating about the ephemeral nature of fame and fortune, legend and legacy. Those who have lived through the 80s will also enjoy the trip down memory lane through the needle drops and various minutiae like chunky computer hardware and bright jogging shorts.
Five films in as director, ‘Air’ shows how Affleck’s craft has matured and deepened. Like we said at the beginning, it is indeed an accomplishment to turn a story about the contractual intricacies of how Nike convinced then-NBA rookie Jordan to sign an endorsement contract into an across-the-board charming endeavour. Whether you are a fan of the sport or someone utterly ignorant to it, ‘Air’ possesses such winning universal appeal by turning its tale of corporate triumph into a well-told, scrappy underdog story. And for those who belong to the former, you’ll appreciate when we say that ‘Air’ is unequivocally a three-point win.
(Thanks to a superb ensemble, smart script and sharp direction, 'Air' successfully turns a tale about corporate triumph into a winning underdog story)
Review by Gabriel Chong