Matt Damon stars as an executive trying to score big for Nike in entertaining 'Air,' directed by pal Ben Affleck | Movie review

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Mar. 31—"Air" has a tricky task: make folks care about a hugely profitable basketball shoe-endorsement deal from nearly 40 years ago.

This isn't trying to break the Watergate story.

It's not trying to catch the Zodiac Killer.

It's not getting Osama bin Laden.

It's Nike signing future basketball superstar Michael Jordan to a contract that, to this day, makes both entities piles of cash.

But what "Air" — a big offering from Amazon Studios set to hit theaters April 5 and with no confirmed date for when it will hit Amazon's Prime Video streaming service — has going for it is the tried-and-true combination of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

The latter stars in the film as Sonny Vaccaro, the passion behind Nike's then-fledgling basketball division. Affleck, meanwhile, portrays Nike founder Phil Knight but, more importantly, for the first time directs his longtime friend and acting partner in films including 1997's "Good Will Hunting" and, much more recently, "The Last Duel." ("Air" is the first offering from the Artists Equity, the production company the pair started last year.)

Affleck certainly knows his buddy's strengths, and the galvanizing performance by Damon ("The Bourne Identity," "The Martian") is one of the biggest reasons "Air" is so steadily entertaining.

"Air" is briskly paced and squeezes its mid-1980s setting for all its juice. Mainly, that comes in the form of a parade of pop hits, starting with Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" and blissfully banging on throughout the movie, so music supervisor Andrea von Foerster ("Yellowstone") and music editor Cory Milano deserve major props. However, it goes beyond that, from a take-you-back montage of iconic 1980s moments (and marketing campaigns!) to the thorough production design of François Audouy ("Ford v Ferrari") and convincing costume work of Charlese Antoinette Jones ("Judas and the Black Messiah").

It's hard to believe it now, but Nike then was not popular with hoopers in the same way competitors such as Adidas and Converse were. Nike, the movie makes clear, was thought of as a "running shoe" brand.

"Black people don't jog," Nike executive Howard White (an enjoyable Chris Tucker) tells his pal Sonny.

When Sonny's not scouting players in person or watching game tape, he's playing craps and betting on games in a Las Vegas casino. He wants Nike to make a big gamble on Jordan, who, as a 19-year-old freshman, hit a game-winning shot for the North Carolina Tar Heels, securing the NCAA championship in 1982.

But not only is Jordan — the third pick of the NBA draft, by the Chicago Bulls — not interested in Nike, Nike can't afford him. In fact, the company plans to spread its endorsement funds among two to three lesser talents. And so Sonny wages a war on two fronts, trying to convince Phil to commit the whole budget to Jordan and to get the talent to actually meet with him and his colleagues.

The key to the latter is Jordan's mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), who has great influence over her son's business decisions. Convince the thoughtful and calculating woman that Nike deserves consideration from her son and the company can get him, Sonny figures.

In his director's statement, Affleck suggests that Deloris, not Sonny, is actually the film's protagonist. Well, no — she is a significant but ultimately supporting character we rarely see away from Sonny. That said, Davis ("The Woman King") is, as always, a force, making the most of the role.

(According to Affleck, when he approached Jordan about getting his blessing to make the movie, the icon suggested Davis for the role. Perhaps the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats is better at Hollywood casting than he is at building an NBA team.)

Damian Young, by the way, portrays the young Michael, but the object of these companies' desires is a background figure, rarely speaking and often shot from behind or kept out of frame.

Other actors contributing to this winning formula include Jason Bateman ("Ozark"), as Rob Strasser, Nike's VP of marketing; Matthew Maher ("Captain Marvel"), as Peter Moore, Nike's creative director, who's long dreamed of making the ultimate basketball show; and a hilarious Chris Messina ("Sharp Objects"), as Jordan's ferocious-and-foul-mouthed agent, David Falk.

"Air" is the first produced screenplay by Alex Convery, and it's a fairly impressive debut. A big Bulls fan, he peppers the affair with snappy dialogue and lines, such as "Nobody wants to see Charles Barkley on TV," as a Nike exec says about the future Hall of Famer who's now the star of TNT's beloved NBA studio show.

Where Convery and Affleck — the director of movies including 2010's "The Town" and 2012 Academy Award winner "Argo" — struggle is landing this plane. The best movies based on actual events find a way to build to a dramatic climax even though the audience knows how the stories end. And you don't have to be a hoops junkie to know well aware of the Air Jordan line.

Without getting into the details, "Air" takes a shot at this that, while not an air ball, also isn't a swish. Generously, we'll say the ball rattles around the rim before falling through the net for two points.

Completely nailing the ending would have been a greater feat than making us care about this deal coming together, which, thanks largely to Damon and Affleck — and Davis — we do, and that's what matters.


Where: Theaters.

When: April 5.

Rated: R for language throughout.

Runtime: 1 hour, 52 minutes.

Stars (of four): 3.