Film Reviews

His Airness Writ Large

I've heard ex-smokers talk about the after-dinner jones, how they hunger for that ritual cigarette, the sweet inhalation of tar and nicotine that tops off a great meal in a way nothing else can. So they settle for the other half of their ritual, a fine brandy or the slight bitterness of a good cup of coffee.Michael Jordan: To the Max ain't no Marlboro, but it makes for a decent cup of Joe. Take it from someone who knows: I was the Jordan junkie equivalent of a two-pack-a-day smoker.

I am a basketball fan, the obnoxious Tar Heel kind from Jordan's alma mater, the University of North Carolina. I finagled tickets to a Bulls game in Chicago for an obscene price and flew there midweek from my former home in South Carolina for one night because I had never seen Jordan play in the United Center. I have a life-size cutout of Jordan. I have original New York Times photographs of Jordan winning the 1998 NBA championship. I have the Sports Illustrated cover with a hologram of Jordan, signed by him in gold pen. I cried when he retired, and I'm not that sentimental. I hated Terms of Endearment and I'll never forgive those bitches, Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger, for those manipulative dying mother-daughter scenes.

But Michael could manipulate me all he wants. I'm someone the NBA worried about when Jordan retired after the 1998 season and the league lost its premier attraction. Kobe Bryant has fabulous moves; Grant Hill is a lovely young man; Vince Carter is even a Tar Heel. But no one thrills like Michael. It's just a lot harder to care now. Thank goodness for college basketball.

I knew before going to the IMAX Theatre's "documentary" on Jordan that it was likely to be pure infotainment. And it is. What else would you expect when the co-producer and co-director is James Stern, part owner of the Chicago Bulls, and one of the executive producers is David Falk, Jordan's agent? And at 45 minutes long, you could hardly expect a comprehensive review of the career and life of any man, much less an icon not only of athletic wonder but of global marketing and image-making.

But IMAX undoubtedly did not expect the Ken Burns crowd to flock to this film. This is a film for Michael Jordan fans, not a learning experience for someone who wants to understand basketball and Jordan's role in it. It's more of a Tony Robbins motivational seminar on keeping the eye of the tiger and learning from failure, presented in alternating sequences of Olympic-style jammin' music video takeouts, Rocky-style symphonic sequences and, weirdly enough, semi-country-quaint Americana.

The reason to see this movie is primarily because it's on a REALLY BIG SCREEN with REALLY BIG SPEAKERS. I'm sorry, but it's worth $8.50 to any Jordan fan to see him commit his amazing moves on a six-story-high screen (which the theater announcer tells us is as big as a basketball court.)You can't help but feel a little of the adrenaline rush.

The camera work isn't technically superior, but Stern was able to get great access for Don Kempf, his co-director. The idea for the film came from Don and Steve Kempf, whose Giant Screen Sports company produces large-format sports films. They reportedly shot half a million feet of film during the Bulls' 1998 season, which serendipitously produced a sixth Bulls championship and a clinching final basket by Jordan in the final game of his career.

Unfortunately, culling the openers from ESPN's SportsCenter alone probably could have produced a more comprehensive array of highlights to illustrate Jordan's extraordinary athleticism and anti-gravity heroics. But To the Max makes up for its selection with the size of the images and the close-ups of Jordan.

For those who have seen the great shots live on TV or in highlight clips, the most impressive moments come when the camera lingers on Jordan before and after his shots. His intense expressions provide imaginary glimpses inside that amazingly focused head of his -- something the setup speeches by Jordan and interviews with his colleagues and coaches don't provide. The extended slow-motion takes of him falling to the floor after a shot, eyes never leaving the rim, then rearranging his limbs to lope back downcourt are joyful to watch. His irresistible smile, the long takes of him walking through the crowd in his style-setting suits and shots of his butt about two stories tall are fairly easy on the eye, too.

Okay, okay. I told you I was a junkie.

There is still a documentary to be done on Michael Jordan. What makes him so great, physically and competitively? What did he learn from North Carolina coach Dean Smith, and vice versa? How much of Jordan's marketing genius and business acumen are his, and who were his business mentors? What role did his father's life and murder really play in Jordan's life? How far does his love of gambling really go? But we'll have to wait on Ken Burns for that.

You don't have to be nuts over Michael Jordan to enjoy a cool afternoon watching this film. But if you aren't at least a little bit of a fan, you might want to consider M:I-2 across the hall at Harkins.

If you do like Mike, this won't satisfy the need like a good long toke on a Camel unfiltered, but it'll do until Kobe grows up.

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Carol Hanner
Contact: Carol Hanner