By Lynn Venhaus

Let’s hear it for the risk-takers. A fascinating underdog story about a game-changing move in corporate America that revolutionized celebrity endorsements is personality-driven, thanks to an all-star cast and savvy script in “Air.”

How Nike was victorious in courting then-NBA rookie Michael Jordan for a shoe campaign in 1984 is told through the eyes of Nike staffers, especially marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), advertising manager Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), shoe designer Peter Moore (Matt Maher), and co-founder and chairman Phil Knight (Ben Affleck).

Tightly constructed, Alex Convery’s first-time screenplay highlights the key elements — a growing niche footwear market; the arrival of the greatest player of all-time, Michael Jordan, on the professional basketball scene; a protective mother’s fierce negotiations; and a think-outside-the-box company located near Portland, Ore. This inspired-by-true-story is an energetic, entertaining film with a lasting impression — and not only for sports fans.

In his first directorial effort since 2016’s lackluster “Live by Night,” Ben Affleck is back to triple-threat greatness, shepherding this crowd-pleaser with smart moves and a keen sense of time and place. After all, his storytelling is on fine display in “Argo,” “The Town,” and “Gone Baby Gone,” too.

Ben Affleck as Nike co-founder and chairman Phil Knight

With considerable skill, he steeps what’s essentially a story of contract maneuvers and phone calls into a culture-defining era, from Knight zipping his purple Porsche with his personalized license plates into the Beaverton headquarters after a run, to Vaccaro buying his Wheaties in a Mary Lou Retton-Olympics box and a Sports Illustrated at the mini-mart.

The year is 1984, and the movie is drenched with a kicky ‘80s soundtrack of MTV classics that sets the mood, and quick news-and-photo montages encapsulates the Reagan years.

At the time, third-best Nike was known for its running shoes, and the upstart company viewed themselves as renegades, while entrenched Adidas and Converse were known for their basketball lines.

In 1984, Jordan left North Carolina after his junior year and was third in the NBA draft, going to the Chicago Bulls. His ability to leap and slam-dunk gave him the nickname “Air Jordan,” which Nike capitalized on as an innovator — and a lasting global brand. It’s a remarkable American ingenuity story.

As Sonny Vaccaro, Matt Damon is forceful and earnest about having a hunch about Jordan and following it through with bold aggressive moves. Sonny develops a special relationship with MJ’s Mom, Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), that is instrumental in sealing the deal. Damon’s character is as appealing as he was in “Ford v Ferrari,” that likeable real-life guy committed to his convictions and smart enough to carry his plan through

In a small but pivotal role, Davis is masterful as the mom whose belief in her son changed celebrity endorsements and deals for athlete’s families.

Before making the film, Affleck said Michael Jordan had one request – that Davis play his mother. His father, James, is genially played by Davis’ real-life husband, Julius Tennon. Affleck focuses on the close relationship Michael had with his parents, and Davis and Tennon depict it beautifully.

Affleck also decided to have an actor play Michael only as a physical presence, preferring to use archival footage, and that works – creating more of a mythology around this larger-than-life mortal. Damian Young is credited but has no dialogue.

Relationships are key to this story’s success, and the long legendary friendship of Damon and Affleck elevates the story as well. Oscar winners for screenplay in “Good Will Hunting,” this is their 20th collaboration, and their first pairing since the underrated “The Last Duel” in 2021 is as dynamic as ever. Word is that they both contributed rewrites to Convery’s original screenplay, and they have an unmistakable rhythm/shorthand with each other.

With its folksy charm and crackling dialogue, “Air” delivers a well-acted and written story that appeals beyond the sports market. It’s a dream team of natural actors defining these colleagues so that we can celebrate their considerable achievements.

Matt Maher, Matt Damon, Jason Bateman

Chris Tucker is well-suited to play Howard White, one of the inspiring former college players on Nike’s roster who helped Air Jordan take flight. He developed relationships with young athletes, including Jordan. Marlon Wayans is seen briefly as Olympics basketball coach George Reveling, who coached Jordan the summer of 1984, and that powerful scene is an important foundation piece. Jordan did not want them left out of his story.

Chris Messina plays Jordan’s bulldog agent David Falk with fiery abrasive bluster.

Matt Maher, who works frequently with Ben and Casey Affleck, deftly portrays the genius shoe designer Peter Moore, who also designed the icon symbol of Jordan taking flight.

It’s a collaborative effort, indicative of a workplace drama-comedy, and gives the real-life people their due for their efforts. Even though we know what happened — but not the particulars per se — we still are enthralled by all the developments. The results-wrap-up is truly remarkable, how such a deal had tremendous ripple effects and outcomes.

It’s early yet, but “Air” is likely sturdy enough to be among the last movies standing at year’s end and will make my short list for Top Ten. Yes, it’s that meaningful, fun and enjoyable.

“Air” is a 2023 sports biopic drama directed by Ben Affleck that stars Affleck, Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Chris Messina, Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, and Marlon Wayans. It is Rated R for language and run time is 1 hour, 52 minutes. Movie opened in theaters on April 5. Lynn’s Grade: A.

By Lynn Venhaus
When husband-and-wife collaborators Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy work together on screen, a low bar has been set, for their previous four movies together had little to redeem them. Yet “Thunder Force,” while just barely a cut above the others, has its moments.

And only a few, for “Thunder Force” is a hodge-podge of tone, temperament and style that squanders opportunities to boost its likability. The strongest aspect is the cast, who looks like they are having fun indulging in all the silliness.

And there is plenty of that, along with slapstick and repetitive gags. Maybe the jokes don’t all land, but let’s keep hammering them again and again just in case people will finally ‘get’ them.      

In a world terrorized by super villains, scientist Emily Stanton (Octavia Spencer) has developed a way to give regular people superpowers. That happens to her estranged best friend Lydia Berman (Melissa McCarthy), who is injected with super strength, when she is poking around. Emily can become invisible. These powers, to be used for good, can protect their city from evil. But can Thunder Force save Chicago from these Miscreants?                            

After the disappointing “Tammy” in 2014 and the unwatchable “Life of the Party” in 2018, (I skipped “The Boss” in 2016),  one wonders why writer-director Falcone still gets to helm projects with his Oscar-nominated wife McCarthy but in November, they presented another lackluster high concept “Superintelligence” on HBOMax and now the forced “Thunder Force” on Netflix.

McCarthy is playing the same character that she has milked for laughs since her breakout role in “Bridesmaids” in 2011 – an uncouth loudmouth slob who beats to her own drummer. The common thread there, along with “The Heat,” “Spy” and “Ghostbusters,” is director Paul Feig, who knows how to reign in her penchant for absurd riffs.

Feig’s direction is disciplined, unlike her husband of 16 years, who lets her go on and on and on – singing random pop songs, doing goofy impressions and just making a good punchline less amusing by not knowing when to stop. 

Why does she stay in her comfort zone when we know she is capable of much more — the Oscar-nominated “Can You Forgive Me?” and an Emmy as host of “Saturday Night Live” in 2017 (and that hilarious Sean Spicer impression)?

The Falcones met doing improvisational sketch comedy at The Groundlings in L.A., and I think their strength is humor in short doses. This movie is like a “SNL” sketch that has gone on far too long.

Apparently, McCarthy and Spencer met during that time, and have been real-life BFFs since then. But you would not know of their connection by the way the relationship is framed in the film.

Emily is a brain who devotes all her time to her work, with little time for frivolity. Lydia is a lonely hard-drinking forklift operator. Neither of them are endearing as good friends, thrown together in school as misfits, but neither is the loyal true-blue friend they should be.

So, they magically team up again after years of estrangement?

The plot holes don’t help. The Miscreants are former borderline sociopaths empowered by interstellar rays in the early ‘80s into super-villains who wreak havoc on the streets of Chicago.

Laser, played by “The Guardians of Galaxy” breakout Pom Klementieff dressed as a dominatrix, hurls blue bolts for destruction.

The thug-boss mayor, played over-the-top by – of course – Bobby Cannavale, referred to as “The King,” and is straight out of Gotham City’s playbook, appearing like a cartoon buffoon in “Batman Returns.”

Falcone also plays one of his henchmen, and after unfortunate skin tasering, has a running gag on how the unsightly scabs appear on his face. Once was enough but the fact it’s repeated is indicative of this hot mess.

And Oscar winner Melissa Leo is totally wasted in a tough-lady operative role.

Now, for the good parts. Jason Bateman, who worked with McCarthy in “Identity Thief” in 2013, is a half-creant, with crab pincer claws as arms. Inexplicably, The Crab and Lydia are drawn to each other (and there is a foreplay scene with drawn butter and Old Bay seasoning). You can tell he’s just slumming, and that’s OK because he knows how to deliver one-liners in a deadpan way. and has a gift for comic timing.

This film, however, belongs to the younger ladies. In flashback, McCarthy’s daughter Vivian Falcone plays her in middle school – and is terrific – and Bria Danielle Singleton is strong as young Emily. They could have had a whole movie developed around them, and that would have been OK, preferable to the middle-age edition.

That said, the jokes about hefty middle-age women in spandex suits and entering and exiting a sports car are funny and relatable.

Taylor Mosby is winning as Emily’s daughter Tracy.

The fact that this movie wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, but it was enjoyable in spurts.

“Thunder Force” is an action comedy directed and written by Ben Falcone. It stars Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Bobby Cannavale, Jason Bateman, Taylor Mosby. Melissa Leo and Pom Klementieff. Rated PG-13 for some action/violence, language and mild suggestive material, the run time is: 1 hour, 46 minutes. The film is available on Netflix beginning April 9. Lynn’s Grade: D+