Friday, August 24, 2012

Movie – American Flyers (1985)

Return with me, if you will, to the mid 1980s.  This is a time when men could have facial hair without being considered “gay” (as so many youngsters on this film’s IMDB board refer to the characters), when cycling was pretty much an unknown sport, and when the big bad Soviet Union was still a ready made antagonist for any American competitor.  The movie I speak of is American Flyers – the first film in which I ever saw Kevin Costner.  He did this movie two years before the film that made him a star – 1987’s The Untouchables.

American Flyers is written by Steve Tesich who had great success with his earlier cycling film Breaking Away (1979).  He decided to revisit some of the themes of family and cycling, but in the arena of more professional competition.  American Flyers is directed by John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, Wargames).

Costner is actually not the lead character.  That would be David Sommers (David Grant, who is more known for producing than acting nowadays).  David is a bit of a disappointment to his family compared to his older, pro athlete/medical doctor brother Marcus (Costner).  In an effort to reconnect, and to try to give some direction to his younger brother’s life, Marcus invites David to come visit him at his sports complex and to train for an upcoming cycling race in the Rockies known as the Hell of the West.  It’s a three day road race that takes cyclists over mountains far higher than the Tour de France ever could.

This isn’t out of left field.  David is a cyclist in his own right; he has just never competed professionally.  When he reaches the sports complex they run all kinds of tests on him, including an endurance test where through sheer stubbornness he manages to break Marcus’ record.  David later overhears Marcus and his lieutenant (John Amos from Roots and Good Times) talking about test results and that this means that the upcoming race should be avoided.  Marcus doesn’t want to tell David about the results.  David assumes the worst and decides that they’ve found something bad in all his tests.  He figures the upcoming race will be his last chance to connect with his brother, so he joins in.

David and Marcus spend much of the trip across the country training, with Marcus’ girlfriend Sarah (Rae Dawn Chong) driving the support van behind them.  Along the way they meet a free spirited hitchhiker named Becky (Alexandra Paul) who David really wants to keep around.  This disappoints Marcus a little bit because he had tried to set David up with a nice girl (a pre-fame Jennifer Grey) earlier in the movie.

They finally reach the site where the race starts.  Marcus is one of the favorites, along with a former teammate and current rival named Muzzin (Luca Bercovici).  You don’t even get a chance to wonder if he’s going to be a nice character; his first appearance on screen is accompanied by the song Bad Moon Rising and we quickly find out his nickname is The Cannibal.  The thing is, he actually does get a little bit of depth to his character as the film goes on.  He used to be friends with Marcus and Sarah, and he gets to make a very pointed comment to a snotty reporter about the 1980 Olympic boycott (something that was still a bitter pill for a lot of athletes in 1985.)

Along with Marcus and Muzzin, the third man favored to win this event is the imposing Soviet rider Belov (John Garber). Garber is also listed as the bicycle trainer on the film, so he was apparently the real deal when it came to cycling.  A familiar face among the cyclists is Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle).  IMDB also lists Steve van Zandt (as in Little Steven from the E Street Band, as well as the Sopranos) as one of the additional cyclists, but I think someone submitted this just to have fun with the IMDB staff.

The cinematography for the racing scenes and the Rockies are quite impressive.  The film puts you right there in the midst of the pack of cyclists, and right on the edge of these roads looking over thousand foot dropoffs with no guard rails.  It also points out several pieces of strategy and tactics that are much better known now from all the televised cycling events, but were unheard of back then.  A great lesson is taught by Marcus when he shows David a tape of an earlier race of his.  He points to the moment he lost the race – well before it was over.  It’s just a subtle little head-down movement that indicated that Marcus had given up.

This film has one of my all time favorite edits.  We are riding right in back of the crowd of cyclists as they enter a dark tunnel in the Rockies.  A couple seconds of blackness follow, and then we come out of the tunnel, but this time in front of the riders with them coming right at us.  It always gets a reaction from anyone I’ve watched this film with.

While I consider Breaking Away to be a slightly better overall film, American Flyers is definitely the one with better racing scenes.  As long as you don’t go in expecting Academy Award performances I think you’ll like this film.  Unless this doesn’t sound like an interesting topic for a movie, I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. What are the strategies and tactics this movie explains? Pro cycling is my favorite sport; I actually cried when my favorite cyclist won the TdF last year. I would be more inclined to like a movie like this if I knew that they got the sport right. Were there teams or are the riders riding individually? And I'm sorry, but there's no way a piddling three day race could ever be harder than any three week stage race; I really don't care how steep the roads are. Sorry, rant over.

    1. I happened to see your question before heading out for the weekend. I'll go into some detail, but I'll need to leave a few out because they are spoilers.

      Marcus teaches David the importance of drafting behind another rider, as well as how to shake off someone who won't leave your back tire. I mentioned the psychological factors of quitting in the post. During the race, both Muzzin and Belov are the lead riders for their respective teams. I can't remember if Marcus has a team he joins or not, but I think he does. Muzzin's team is the 7-Eleven Team which had just started sponsoring an American team in the Tour de France, which soon led to Greg Lemond being the first American to win a couple years after this movie. During the first stage David gets yelled at by some other riders for not watching his line, showing the group dynamics. There's a big sprint at the end of the stage and the winner is celebrated. Only the top 50 are allowed to continue to the next two stages. There's a breakaway on the second day that the group isn't too worried about and later they "reel them in". Marcus points out to David the small signs that Muzzin is about to launch a breakaway attack. Marcus gets a flat tire during the race and they show Rae Dawn Chong jumping out of the van, changing the tire, and pushing him on his way, I think all in one shot so you know the actress is really doing it. Sure, none of these things are that earthshaking nowadays, but back when this movie came out they would have been brand new to most of the viewers.

      And yes, the Tour de France is 3 weeks long, so this race wouldn't have the increased risk of day to day injury or accident that it would have. However, in the movie itself they mention that the race goes over the highest paved road in North America - something over 12,000 feet high - and that even the fittest athlete will have trouble getting enough oxygen at that altitude to continue. (They start pressurizing planes at 10,000 feet.) In contrast, the highest the Tour de France has ever gotten is a little over 9,000 feet way back in 1962 (per Wikipedia.)