Into Africa

Rice University professor and acclaimed writer Max Apple (author of two novels, Zip and The Propheteers, and two collections of short stories, The Oranging of America and Free Agents) penned the screenplay of feel-good basketball movie The Air Up There. It's about time that a Houstonian besides Larry McMurtry made some Hollywood bucks.

With a main character based loosely on Hakeem Olajuwon, this formula flick tells the story of a down-and-out college coach, Jimmy Dolan (Kevin Bacon), who journeys to Kenya to scout an amazing local talent, Saleh (Charles Gitonga Maina). The brash and cocky Dolan mucks things up a bit, until he learns the ways of Saleh's friendly tribe; then he helps them settle their problems with a troublesome faction. Full of local color and cheery athletics, the movie focuses on character transformation: before Saleh, a prince, will go with Dolan, Dolan must also become a prince.

This recognizable cultural comedy executes the expected game plan. Cattle are tended and animals roam. Natives are done up in full regalia. We experience tribal music, a local wedding and a ritual ceremony. Jokes are made about the trots, and about how Americanized rural Africa is -- what with ESPN and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition available. There's THE BIG GAME, complete with blatant fouls and a girl player who gets goosed and exacts revenge -- and, of course, a last-minute hero.

Directed by Paul M. Glaser (the former co-star of Starsky and Hutch, who also directed The Running Man), The Air Up There is better than The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh and those old-time Fred MacMurray flubber movies. It has no intention of aspiring to, say, One on One, not to mention Hoosiers, or what may be the best-ever basketball movie, Inside Moves.

"I love this game!" goes the NBA slogan, and all parties here obviously agree. As with many movies based on real-life sports stars, one inevitably wonders if The Air Up There is the apple of Olajuwon's eye, but considering the Rockets' record this year, he probably has more pressing things to think about.

The Air Up There. Directed by Paul M. Glaser. Starring Kevin Bacon and Charles Gitonga Maina. Rated PG. 107 minutes.

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