On the synopsis level, American Flyers ought to be one of the corniest movies of the year, and one of the most manipulative. And the film itself may be both of those things, but it’s also a few things more, including entertaining, funny and lively.
It’s the contrived story of two brothers: Marcus (Kevin Costner), doctor and world-class bicyclist, and the much younger David (David Grant), a college student, and himself a bike enthusiast, who lives withhis mother (Janice Rule) in St. Louis. Mother and older son are estranged.
Writer Steve Tesich (who penned the superb screenplays to Breaking Away and The World According to Garp) has decided to bring this family together, and he’s going to do it by involving the brothers in a big bike race – something called the “Hell of the West” in Colorado – and by throwing a fatal disease at one of them.
With that in mind, you know from the beginning that one of them is going to go on and (probably) win the bike race while the other dies of a weak blood vessel in his brain.
OK, it sounds awful, I know. But Tesich is such a smart writer, and has such a way with true dialogue and situations, he makes it work. Even uncomfortable scenes are shot through with humor, and Tesich has a knack for creating peripheral characters who can steal scenes, such as the superharged manager of a school health club (John Amos) and his pudgy son, whose athletic ambitions begin and end with bowling.
And John Badham, who whipped up some effective suspense in Saturday Night Fever, Dracula, and WarGames, was a good choice as director. Badham shuffles the story along from the expositional scenes in which the fatal disease is diagnosed, to some amusing bicyling asides, to the big race.
He shoots this punishing race, which takes place in the unearthly Colorado scenery, with a variety of helicopter and ground-level shots. The danger and the thrill of the race are quite effectively rendered, to put it mildly.
The other redeeming feature about American Flyers is the acting, which is very pleasant. Costner, the wild kid in Silverado, is likable, although the movie really belongs to David Grant, who has the better role.
Rae Dawn Chong is Costner’s roommate, but she’s also the ex-wife of his main biking competitor, who happens to be nicknamed “The Cannibal.” This adds more tension to the big race, of course (Tesich really knows how to pour it on when he wants to).
To throw a little love interest to David Grant, Tesich cooks up a free-spirit hitchhiker (Alexandra Paul), whom Grant meets in a roadside McDonald’s. She only met him because she had to wait for her food order; thus, if she’d taken a Big Mac right away instead of waiting for a Quarter Pounder, they never would have gotten involved. She chalks this up to unalterable Destiny.
The film, as doubtful as its plot might sound, is full of quirky little things like that. It doesn’t have big stars or high concept, but with a little word of mouth, American Flyers could turn into an unexpected hit.
First published in the Herald, October 8, 1985
David Grant became better known as David Marshall Grant, and Kevin Costner became better known. Tesich, such a promising (and already Oscar-winning) talent, died of a heart attack at age 53.