Films can work in a lot of ways. One of the rarest, yet most effective, is that a film can show you worlds you don't know, can make you understand the complexities, joys, and problems of people who are not like yourself. When done well, this kind of film can have the sort of intense impact only possible in a revelation. I have no interest in bicycle racing, nor bicycles in general. Hell, I never even learned to ride a bike. But American Flyers showed me the world of bicycle racers and made me care about it, and perhaps even understand a little of it. American Flyers is an exhilarating, finely crafted film of interest to all audiences, not just bicycle enthusiasts.
American Flyers is about a pair of brothers, David and Marcus. Though they love each other very much, they have been separated for years until Marcus, a doctor, returns to take David off with him. David, it seems, is developing the symptoms of the aneurism which killed their father, and Marcus must test him to be sure. After the test, Marcus, a championship cross country cyclist, whisks his brother off to Colorado for the Hell of the West bike race, a grueling, mountainous contest that Marcus barely lost the previous year. This year, Marcus intends that he and his brother will win it. Along with the brothers are Marcus' lover and a pretty, slightly spacey hitchhiker picked up along the way. Opposing them is Marcus' ex-racing partner, nicknamed the Cannibal, the rest of the racers, the strenuous, sometimes dangerous, course, and the ominous threat of the hereditary illness. Perhaps most importantly, the brothers must find a way to settle the problems which have torn their family apart.
Steve Tesich's script is excellent, the basis for all else in the film. Tesich is a cycle enthusiast, responsible for the only other successful bicycle movie, Breaking Away This script is as good, or better. The characters have the touch of reality so rare in films. The dialog is well written and funny, without seeming artificial. Tesich makes good use of the three part race to build up to three separate climaxes, with three separate sets of problems. Tesich shows how well a professional writer can craft a script, and at the same times displays the difference that passion for the material can make.
John Badham's contribution to the enterprise is not to be overlooked. His direction is particularly good during the racing sequences (credit also to editor Frank Morriss), but he does well throughout. American Flyers is nicely paced, and never dull. Badham's use of scenery is worthy of particular note, as is Don Peterman's photography of that scenery. Badham and Tesich, in concert, handle certain vital plot complications very nicely, too. Badham makes especially good use of small touches, doubtless hinted at by Tesich in the script but presented in clever ways by Badham. Lee Ritenour and Greg Mathieson provide a score which rises to the challenges of the writing and editing, again being of special value during the races.
American Flyers in terms of performances, belongs, from the script onward, to the brothers. All the parts are well written and well played, but the conflicts come from the interactions of Marcus (Kevin Costner) and David (David Grant). Costner, fresh off playing a cocky younger brother in Silverado gets to be the steadier elder brother here, and I like him better in this role. Costner shows Marcus' intelligence and self-knowledge very well. While the character is definitely a good man, he has enough flaws and makes enough mistakes to be real. Grant is quite believable as a talented young man who doesn't have the dedication to make the most of his gifts. He slowly picks up his brother's lessons, becoming more and more able to handle the problems of his life.
Rae Dawn Chong has the best part she's had since Quest for Fire (not saying much), as Marcus' lover. She handles the part well. Alexandra Paul, playing the hitchhiker, is blessed with the most appealing laugh I can remember having seen. That she is beautiful and can act doesn't hurt, either. John Amos does a good job with precisely the sort of part black actors want but almost never get: a man who is intelligent, interesting, and successful, and is also definitely black. The film doesn't pretend that he isn't black (usually the best that black performers can expect), but treats it as another fact, along with the facts that he is highly educated, compassionate, funny, and likeable. Janice Rule, playing the mother, suffers from an underwritten and slightly unsympathetic part, perhaps the script's only big flaw, but she does reasonably well, none the less. The rest of the cast is also fine.
American Flyers is a film that is meant to make you feel good, but it is willing to buy its applause, not cheat for them. Tesich and Badham give us a real story, well told, and believable characters who face problems and grow from their experiences. Badham isn't trying to just use a little flashy editing and rousing music to get our adrenaline pumping. He gives us something we really should care about, and that is what makes the difference. Even if you think that you might not be interested in American Flyers I still recommend it, and expect that you will be glad I did.
Back to the review list.