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‘The Air Up There’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 07, 1994

In "The Air Up There," assistant college basketball coach Kevin Bacon is hunting down the scouting coup of his life. His name is Saleh (played by Charles Gitonga Maina Ngatia), he's a 6-foot-8 Kenyan and he practically has to stoop to make a slamdunk.

To get his man, Bacon has to plunge into deepest Kenya, where Saleh lives among the (fictitious) Winabi tribe. These guys are so far out in the boonies, they're the brunt of Winabi jokes from their own countrymen. Example: How many Winabis does it take to milk a cow? (Answer: 20. One to hold the udders, the rest to move the cows up and down.)

The best thing about "Air" is Maina, a pleasant, cinegenic fellow who -- no doubt -- is headed towards a sports or movie career. The gods would be crazy not to sign him up. And if you like African spectacle with your formula, this movie packs enough for a thousand slide shows: Kevin threshes through the savannah; Kevin marvels at giraffes; Kevin runs from a wart hog, pants around his ankles; and of course, Kevin meets the bead-festooned Winabis.

Speaking of formula, there's so much of it, you may need to step outside for air out there. Bacon has a plethora of Hollywood lessons to learn. A former player still attached to his 1981 national championship ring, he's got to grow up if he wants that head coach position back home. Like the multitude of Disney visitors to Africa before (and after) him, he must learn to respect the noble savages he wishes to exploit. Saleh and his Winabis are not for sale -- at least, not immediately.

Wait, there's more. Bacon's also got to deliver the Winabis from the bullying Minoris, who covet the tribe's rich mining land. When the Winabi chief challenges his rivals to a winner-take-all basketball game, Bacon gets to coach and play. But first, he has to join the tribe, which means he has to scale a tall mountain through heat, special-effect lightning and -- worst of all -- triumphant Nike-commercial-type music on the soundtrack. At this point, his warrior mantra becomes clear and simple: The Dark Continent -- Just Do It.

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