Transfer: Very Good
Label: Warner Home Video
Region: 1 (NTSC)
Released: December 21, 1999
Genre: Drama / Sports
Synopsis: Two estranged brothers reunite for a tough cycling marathon.
Special Features: (none)
Whether screenwriter Steve Tesich was compelled to revisit the world of cycling or was lured by producers to pen a script building on the success of his Oscar-winning Breaking Away (1979), the resulting American Flyers may have been a modest success upon its original release, but 30 years later it’s an artifact of classic 80s triumphalism where a little guy wins big and gets an anthemic theme song to boot.
The central story of a fractured family isn’t new, nor is a pre-existing distrust between older more successful brother Marcus (Kevin Costner, sporting porn star moustache and sandy beige highlights) and family baby David (anxious David Marshall Grant, perpetually sporting a cowboy hat), paranoid that he too has the lethal DNA that’ll soon claim his life as happened to the Sommers family patriarch.
Tesich’s deliberately awkward dinner scenes in which mother Sommers (Janice Rule) attempts a rapproachement with Macus and a later scene where Marcus and girlfriend Sarah (Rae Dawn Chong) try and fix David up with a pretty phys ed aide Leslie (Jennifer Grey) are terribly written, and the bad banter between David and hitchhiking ‘free spirit’ Becky (Alexandra Paul) is quite grating, but the relationship between the brothers has enough firm grounding that it carries the script’s main plot in which Marcus trains David to impart a sense of personal pride and purpose, and uses their rekindled kinship to enter the “Hell of the West cycling race in Colorado, where 48 contenders must travel grueling ascents and twists along vicious mountain highways.
David’s sense of inevitable doom works for the film, and the not quite sudden twist that determines the finale is fine, but unlike the combination of characters, humour, and cycling that made Breaking Away a near-perfect coming of age tale, the clichéd melodrama and John Badham’s slick commercial direction dilute Tesich’s more dramatic variation to a by-the-numbers crowd pleaser that sadly offers nothing new beyond seeing a unique cast of stars, veterans (Rule John Amos), and newcomers (Grey, Paul, and Robert Townsend), and beautifully choreographed cycling montages.
Badham’s style was slick and appropriate for the era, often comprised of montages set to pulsing synth music or theme songs (the awful title track recurs three times in the film), and crowning each film with some vital personal triumph that ensured audiences would leave cinemas well-fed on formulaic escapism. Connoisseurs of eighties banalities might savour the dated synth pop score by guitarist Lee Ritenour and Greg Mathieson (neither of whom remained active as film composers) and weak female characters that surround the central masculine heroes, but it gets especially rich when mom is ferried to the last race to see her boys do well, guaranteeing the ending is almost tragedy-free.
Interesting for Tesich is the cartoon characterization of Marcus’ longtime foe Muzzin (smug & snarling Luca Bercovici, future writer of Ghoulies), who seems to humanize towards the end but turns nasty in a moment that feels producer-imposed rather than Tesich pulling a fast one on audiences.
Muzzin’s assholishness stems from the U.S. boycott of the 1984 Moscow Olympics, being robbed of the opportunity to claim gold while in his physical prime, and while that bitterness may explain his loathing of former teammate Marcus, it comes off as ludicrous when he throws nothing but contempt at his Soviet competitors who literally grunt and snarl like primates. Soviet team leader Belov (John Garber) is a bearded hulk, and personifies Soviet caricatures that dominated many bonehead 80s melodramas and actioners such as Rocky 3 (1982) and Red Dawn (1984) – both cult films for having pinched anti-Soviet sentiments.
The reason American Flyers can’t fit in with those cult films is because Belov & Co. barely register as even caricatures, and one suspects they exist onscreen purely to egg on Muzzin during the race – big red emotionless goons incapable of experiencing joy when honored as second place victors.
John Badham’s career is kind of fascinating in its arc, starting as a director of episodic TV and TV movies to blockbuster feature films – Saturday Night Fever (1977), Blue Thunder (1983), WarGames (1983), Short Circuit (1986), Stakeout (1987) and The Hard Way (1991) – before a series of duds had him returning to TV where he’s permanently settled since 2002. He was one of the pivotal figures in populist escapism during the 80s, working with top stars and substantive budgets, and while his rare attempts in other genres were fine – Dracula (1979) and Whose Life is it Anyways? (1981) – they were rarities in a highly commercial career that arguably prevented him from tackling genres outside of action, action-comedy, and action-drama.
Steve Tesich’s other original and adapted screenplays include Breaking Away (1979), Eyewitness (1981), Four Friends (1981), The World According to Garp (1982), and Eleni (1985).
© 2015 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review