Release Date(s)1985 (April 12, 2022)
Studio(s)Warner Bros. (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: D
American Flyers is the story of a grueling bicycle race and the taxing relationships within a troubled family.
Twenty-year-old David Summers (David Grant) trains on his bicycle every day in St. Louis, hoping some day to be as good a racer as his older brother, Marcus (Kevin Costner). David has dropped out of both medical and law schools, and Marcus, a doctor of sports medicine in Madison, Wisconsin, left home under cloudy circumstances after the death of their father. A dinner scene early in the film establishes the conflict in the family caused by the inability of their mother (Janice Rule) to cope with their father as he lay dying in pain. She did little during his last two weeks to make his passing less painful.
Their father died of a brain aneurysm and now Marcus fears that David may have the same condition. He takes David to Madison and runs him through a series of tests, which do turn up the inherited condition. Marcus decides not to tell David, and in a final act of bonding, sets out with him by van to compete in the Hell of the West, a rough, three-day competition in the Colorado Rockies in which cyclists have to cover courses that sometimes reach an altitude of 12,000 feet.
The race becomes a number of showdowns for the brothers, who must compete against the other racers and also against the shadow of death. The race is run in three stages. In the second stage, Marcus begins to bleed from the nose and loses his orientation. It’s then up to David to win the race.
Though Kevin Costner is top billed, Grant’s David Summers is equally important. Both actors are effective given the material they have to work with but never seem fully invested in their roles. Costner walks through the film with a lack of emotion. Grant is better, but neither of the actors have scenes that portray their characters sympathetically.
The screenplay by Steve Tesich (Breaking Away) sets up the melodrama but leaves many questions unanswered. There’s mention of the mother’s seeming abandonment of her husband at the moment of his greatest need, but this is never explored. There are also inconsistencies in character relationships, which appear to change abruptly without adequate explanation. David Summers, the central character, is never fleshed out enough. He’s often angry, but why did he drop out of two promising careers? And why is Marcus so unforgiving of their mother, who had to be under enormous pressure herself as her husband lay dying? As combativeness between the brothers gives way to camaraderie, the true nature of their conflict is tough to get a handle on.
Director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, War Games) makes the bicycle races exciting to watch, incorporating crane and helicopter shots to capture dynamic images of the cyclists in motion. This was well before drones, commonly used nowadays for filming high-angle shots. Sometimes tracking the racers at ground level from the front, other times shooting from behind, Badham creates considerable visual variety and tension. There’s even a requisite “villain” competitor who has a particular desire to vanquish the brothers. This is an obvious toss-in to add badly needed conflict.
Overall, American Flyers is merely OK. Unlike Breaking Away, another bicycle-themed film, American Flyers never draws us in adequately. We are observers, not involved participants in the lives of these two enigmatic siblings.
American Flyers was shot by director of photography Don Peterman on 35 mm film with Panavision cameras and lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (2.20:1 on 70 mm prints). Warner Archive brings the film to Blu-ray with a new HD master on a BD-50 (the source of the transfer is not known). Clarity and contrast are excellent. The bold primary colors of the participants’ jerseys really pop and delineate the competitors from one another. A night scene around a campfire features deep, lustrous blacks. Details, such as complexions, gears on the bicycles, and logos on jerseys are sharp. The bicycle race sequences were filmed during the Coors Classic and are often spectacular, with the red rock mountain terrain providing a dramatic backdrop.
Featuring an English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, the film offers a fairly standard audio mix. Dialogue is precise and clear as a bell throughout. The big race is when the sound comes alive, from Lee Ritenour and Greg Mathieson’s rousing score, to the sound effects of bicycles whirring by, to crowds cheering the racers. English SDH subtitles are an available option.
The only extra is the film’s theatrical trailer.
American Flyers is interesting as an early showcase for Kevin Costner, but is otherwise not terribly distinguished. It never achieves the critical or popular acclaim of Badham’s Saturday Night Fever or features memorable performances as did the director’s Dracula (Frank Langella) and The Hard Way (the great chemistry between Michael J. Fox and James Woods). It’s rich in bicycle race footage but lacking in solid characterization.
- Dennis Seuling