The coming-of-age classic “Breaking Away” (click here for my review) was the first bicycle-themed film that I liked. It has an outstanding cast and is truly an excellent film because of the acting and the screenplay. However, there’s another bicycle-based movie that is pretty good and you most likely don’t remember it: “American Flyers.” It didn’t get the either the audience or critical attention of “Breaking Away,” which made nearly 20 times the box office dollars as “American Flyers,” but it is emotional and exciting without being sophomoric. I know that you’ll enjoy “American Flyers” almost as much as “Breaking Away.” Almost, but not quite the same.
(1985; 113 minutes; rated PG-13; directed by John Badham and starring Kevin Costner, David Marshall Grant and Rae Dawn Chong)
BEFORE COSTNER WAS BIG, THERE WAS ‘AMERICAN FLYERS’
(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion; fixed some typos; and updated links on April 16, 2016. I again expanded this review on April 18, 2018.)
“American Flyers” is one of those “little” movies that you probably don’t remember or didn’t see because it was only in limited release. On the surface, it doesn’t appear possible that is could be such a solid flick that you’ll want to see it for the first time – much less re-watching years later. However, first thoughts here are deceiving. “American Flyers” is a pre-star turn for Kevin Costner, who’s backed up by as excellent a supporting cast as he could have picked, and worth every second of your time.
In 1983, two years before “American Flyers,” Costner got some buzz for a film where you didn’t even see his face. He was “Alex” in “The Big Chill” but his scenes were deleted. Then, 1985 arrived with him being “Jake” in the hit western “Silverado” (click here for my review) and then “American Flyers” was released just over a month later. “Silverado” would be the 28th top grossing film, while “American Flyers” was almost immediately forgotten and was 145th with only $1.4 million.
Of course, Costner would head into the acting stratosphere in the next six years with “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams,” “Dances With Wolves” and “JFK.” However, his work in “American Flyers” competes favorably with these better-known films and he’s his usual smooth, cool and confident self here. Add in the layer of vulnerability brought on by a family health issue (plus his ’80s moustache) and he’s doing it all here.
“American Flyers” is the story of a pair of brothers: Costner as “Marcus Sommers” and the very underrated David Marshall Grant as “David Sommers.” The bond between the brothers is strained because of a past, their present and a potentially future family health crisis (genetically inclined to brain aneurysms that killed their father) and the fallout that left Costner isolated from Grant and their mother.
After Costner, who plays a sports specialist physician, gets Grant to come to his university’s sports medicine lab, he’s able to give in a test for the brain disorder. Grant is clean, but something else comes up (I won’t give it away here but you’ll figure it out) and he agrees to go to Colorado with Costner for a bike race (the fictional “Hell of the West”). Then it’s on an adventure with a pretty predictable end – but that doesn’t hurt the film, thankfully.
Here’s a look at some of the principal cast:
- As I’ve already written, two-time Oscar winner (not for this one) Costner is pretty much ’80s here with the ’stache, but he manages to do his best work as he stridently fights within himself about all the emotions swirling throughout his life. I’d like to believe that Costner considers his turn as one of his most effective. He would go on five years later with “Dances With Wolves” that would bring him his statues – one for best film; the other for director – and a nomination for Best Actor. He was solid in the golf flick “Tin Cup” (click here for my review) but that dog had the fleas that came from trying too hard to be a “great” golf film; and I also liked his work in “Draft Day” (click here for my review), which is real fantasy football with an NFL team doing the right thing.
- If you’ve seen Primetime Emmy nominee Grant in such films as “French Postcards” (click here for my review), then you’ll first recognize that he is being himself here. Grant doesn’t stretch himself much, but then I’m not sure how much acting muscle he has overall. In the end, though, he turns it into one, if not the best, of his acting efforts. Grant has also been in “The Devil Wears Prada” and “The Chamber” as well as a string of TV roles from “Chicago Hope” to “CSI: Miami.” He earned the nomination for “The Legend of Billy the Kid.”
- The female lead here is Rae Dawn Chong, who is quietly outstanding as Costner’s live-in girlfriend “Sarah,” who is the ex-wife of Costner’s bicycle racing rival. Chong is strong, capable and able to withstand the rollercoaster ride of the two brothers’ emotions. An outstanding turn by Chong, who was also in “Commando” (click here for my review) and, horrible and execrable as it is, “The Color Purple.” Don’t worry, she much better here than how she did next to Arnie in “Commando.”
- After Chong, the other love interest in the film is filled by Alexandra Paul as the hitchhiking hippie “Becky.” The extraordinarily beautiful Paul, who would go on to be known as “Lt. Stephanie Holden” on TV’s “Baywatch,” gets a ride with the trio after giving them the finger while hitchhiking. She projects her character’s depth (not obvious at first; she’s somewhat scatterbrained) and development, but she does a good job to put some oomph into “Becky.” Paul was also the love interest in “Christine” (click here for my review) as well as “Dragnet” with Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks.
- Veteran supporting actor and Primetime Emmy nominee John Amos shows how to make the most out of a small part. Amos plays “Dr. Dennis Conrad,” who is Costner’s boss. He knows all the ins-and-outs of the family drama and is especially effective as the buffer between characters. Amos’ best scene is where his listens in disbelief as his son explains why he wants to become a bowler because, as he points out, there are no black bowlers. Amos’ expressions and response in this scene are great. He was also in TV’s “Good Times” as well as serving up a great comic turn in “Coming to America” with Eddie Murphy. He got this nomination for TV’s iconic and legendary mini-series “Roots.”
The film wraps with what could too easily have been a saccharine ending. All the components are there but it just works well here. Good job by director John Badham, who also was at the helm for “Saturday Night Fever” and “WarGames” (click here for my review).
Now, about the word “flyers.” It is usually used wrong by well-intentioned people who do not know that a “flyer” is NOT a handbill or something you put under a car’s windshield wiper. Sigh. As to the misuse of spelling, it’s kind of like how idiots believe American English’s “theater” is actually the British spelling of “theatre”) – but it’s nothing more than a tepid misspelling because “flyer” is now consider by those less-than-purists to be a handbill. For the record: a “flier” is a pilot or handbill, while a “flyer” was the name of railroad trains – such as the Western Flyer.
With a limited release, “American Flyers” was only 145th at the domestic box office in 1985, with $1.4 million in receipts. The No. 1 film was “Back to the Future” at $210.6 million while Costner’s other film that year, “Silverado,” brought in $32.1 million. Other films from 1985 that I’ve reviewed include:
- “Commando” (cheesy Schwarzenegger) – click here for my review
- “Fletch” (classic comedy) – click here for my review
- “Gotcha!” (underratedly good) – click here for my review
- “Just One of the Guys” (good) – click here for my review
- “Moving Violations” (bad, very bad) – click here for my review
- “C. and Stiggs” (pure crap) – click here for my review
- “Prizzi’s Honor” (very good) – click here for my review
- “Real Genius” (terrific comedy) – click here for my review
- “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” (horrid) – click here for my review
- “Silverado” (super) – click here for my review
- “Target” (excellent) – click here for my review
- “To Live and Die in L.A.” (outstanding) – click here for my review
- “Turk 182!” (very good) – click here for my review
- “Weird Science” (good) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- Jennifer Grey has a small part here as “Leslie,” who works with Costner and Chong and is set up as a blind date for Grant. Grey is in only her fourth film here (the second after “Red Dawn” – click here for my review) and is of course best known for “Dirty Dancing” from two years later.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “Alexandra Paul plays Becky who in the beginning of the film is a woman trying not to eat meat. In real life, Alexandra Paul is a vegan.”
- Luca Bercovici plays “Barry ‘The Cannibal’ Muzzin,” who is Costner’s former teammate and now sworn enemy. Bercovici bears some resemblance to TV’s Ted Danson and people often “recall” that Danson was in this film. Bercovici was also in “Pacific Heights.”
- Robert Townsend has a small role as “Jerome,” partner of Bercovici and a friend of both Costner and Chong. He has also been in “The Mighty Quinn” and “The Five Heartbeats.”
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “In the ‘shake and brake’ ‘wheelsucker’ horse race scene, the cowboys were told to hold the horses back, as the director wanted the cyclists to beat them.”
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