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A Tired Plot Doesn't Deflate the Fun of 'Air' : In "The Air Up There" an American assistant college basketball coach (Kevin Bacon) with attitude problems goes to Kenya to recruit a 6-foot-10 tribesman. In the process, he becomes a member of the tribe, and has to coach the team in a game to retain its homeland. (Rated PG)

January 13, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition.

One of the advantages of youth is that the world can still seem fresh. One hasn't yet seen so many leaves, clouds or neon signs that they can be taken for granted, as they so often are later in life. That innocence also clearly comes in handy in the movie theater when a film such as "The Air Up There" trots out a plot so tired it should come with a pillow.

Though it uses basketballs instead of elephant guns, "Air" is pretty much the same Bwana movie that's been made repeatedly since Hollywood discovered loincloths: Civilized white guy shows up and saves hapless tribal people from their woes. Of course, being a modern Bwana movie, "Air" also has the requisite subplot of "uncentered white guy discovers his true nature and social responsibility from otherwise hapless tribal people."

But for kids who didn't grow up on Tarzan movies, "Air" was evidently some satisfying stuff.

Twelve-year-old twins Eileen and Vivian Charlton of Huntington Beach each gave the movie a 10, saying they liked it better than both "Sister Act 2" and "Mrs. Doubtfire."

It also rated well with 7-year-old basketball player Cole St. Clair of Santa Ana. He liked "Jurassic Park" and "Cool Runnings" all right, "but there was not very much about basketball in them," he keenly noted. "This was fun. It was so full of basketball, and it was pretty exciting."

He wasn't the only basketball fan in attendance.

Keith Short, 12, of Fountain Valley was there, too.

"It was great because I like how it really highlighted basketball, like the movie 'Necessary Roughness' did football."

Fine, but what about all that African scenery and tribal life depicted up there on the screen?

"Well," Keith said, "this movie really taught you how Africa does pretty much the same stuff as does the NBA, stuff like that. Also, that it's hot and humid."

Both he and his brother Josh, 11, thought "Air" was at least as good as other movies they've seen recently.

Most kids queried said their favorite part was the climax of the big game at the end, where Kevin Bacon's character, mouthy assistant college coach Jimmy Dolan, coaches a tribal team against that of a local mining baron who is taking over the tribe's land.

That confrontation had been telegraphed nearly an hour earlier in the film, and, indeed, there was scarcely an unpredictable second in the whole affair. There is, though, some colorful tribal garb and zippy ball playing.

Dolan, a onetime hot shot player with a knee injury that could "put him in a wheelchair" if he doesn't go easy on it, is told by his mentor/coach that he is too undisciplined to replace him as coach of the college team. So Dolan naturally disobeys orders and high-tails it to Africa to find the 6-foot-10 Saleh (quite likably played by Kenyan Charles Gitonga Maina) and bring him to the States.

Dolan and Saleh become friends, and he earns the trust of the tribe members, though there's little on-screen to indicate how any of this happens. Nevertheless, the tribe places its entire hope on his basketball acumen to save them from the mine baron and his village-burning minions.

Before he can play, Dolan must become initiated into the tribe, which means he and his bad knee have to climb a treacherous mountain, and he then undergoes what is presumably a circumcision ceremony. Several kids picked this out as the ickiest part of the picture, though it is sufficiently vague that one kid described the scene as "when they took that big old knife and stuck it in his stomach."

There was practically no sexual content in the film--unless one counts a kissing nun--but there is a fair measure of doo-doo humor, which some kids naturally cited as being the funniest parts.

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