If you search IMDb’s incredibly handy “plot keywords” for the phrase “rollerblading,” only twenty-eight titles pop up, and most of them aren’t even truly concerned with rollerblading as an actual plot element. The number one rated entry is “Skitchin,’” which is actually a video game from 1994. The number two rated entry? The UK’s uproariously funny series “Absolutely Fabulous,” which has absolutely nothing to do with rollerblading. You’ll have to scroll all the way down to the exact middle of the list – entry number 14 – to find Rob Bowman’s Airborne (above 2002’s Rollerball, below an Erik von Detten-starring Disney movie called Brink! about a pack of teens who call themselves “Soul-Skaters” because “Hammy Sad People Skating Together Because You Don’t Get Me, Mom” wasn’t punchy enough), which is an immense cinematic tragedy, simply because Airborne is the best film about rollerblading ever made.
It also turns twenty today.
There is no real reason that Airborne should work – it’s basically demented and it hit screens without any true named talent. Bowman is and was a TV guy, and his resume is peppered with more television shows than you can shake a stick (wheeled boot?) at, from 21 Jump Street to Star Trek: The Next Generation to Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, all the way up to current stuff like Castle. Sure, he also directed the first X-Files film, along with Reign of Fire and Elektra, but let’s forget about all those titles because wouldn’t you want to if you were Rob Bowman? The man directed Airborne, for chrissakes! Let’s give him some respect! The film is also the lone screenwriting credit for its two (two!) scribes, super-producer Stephen McEveety and the otherwise non-Hollywood-affiliated Bill Apablasa. Star Shane McDermott was a former gymnast whose major claim to fame pre-Airborne was a role in The Baby-Sitters Club television series (he’s now a real estate agent). It was love interest Brittany Powell’s first starring role. It co-stars no less than both Seth Green and Jack Black, and only one of them plays a kind of douchey hockey guy.
The film opened on September 17, 1993 in a staggering 982 theaters. It went up against other new releases like Striking Distance and The Age of Innocence. It placed twelfth in a crowded box office field that was still eating up The Fugitive, True Romance, Jurassic Park, and Sleepless in Seattle. It made only $2.8m at the box office and has the distinction of being only the 28th best “extreme sports” moneymaker.
It is still entirely wonderful and relentlessly dumb.
If you can watch the first five or so minutes of Airborne without laughing hysterically, good for you. McDermott plays a California surfer dude named Mitchell “Goose” Goosen who is blindsided by the news that his zoologist parents are ditching him for half a year and shipping him off to live with distant family in goddamn Cincinnati. Goose is either some sort of deeply centered prophet or a complete idiot – obsessed with things like “stylin” and calling people “brah,” Mitchell is really only suited for life by the beach (where else could he call something a “consciousness raiser” without being laughed out of the room?). Cincinnati does not appeal to him. Snow does not appeal to him. Hockey goons do not appeal to him.
It’s simply enough, really – what is a surf bum to do in Cincinnati? While surfing is Mitchell’s main gig, he’s also into rollerblading, and when someone finally wises up (his parents? Aren’t they off somewhere sans Mitchell?) and send him his blades, his life starts to look up almost immediately. See, Mitchell’s hippie-dippy dumbness doesn’t play too well in his new high school, and the fact that his cousin Wiley (Green) is a loser and that he’s taken a shine to Head Hockey Goon’s sister Nikki (Powell) isn’t working out too well for him. Are there hijinks and gags?, you ask. Are there ever! There is sand in a locker and a prank about Mitchell not being to wipe his own ass and Jack Black basically telling people he’s a stoner and just all kinds of mirth. There’s a trip through a huge greenhouse in which he charms Nikki by routinely skating away from her (charming, horrifying). There’s just a lot of stuff, and it’s all very nineties and very Rollerblade-y. Mitchell often hallucinates.
And then there is the competition. For whatever reason, the hockey goons must go up against “the preps” (no, really) in a massive in-line skating competition down a hill called “The Devil’s Backbone” (no, really) and suddenly – suddenly! – they need Goose’s skills. Desperate for attention and acceptance, cripplingly lonely, utterly forgetful of his outcast cousin, Goose signs up for the competition. Now they will accept him! Now they will love him! Raise your consciousness, brah!
The real tragedy of Airborne is that nobody dies, but it does teach us a lot of life lessons about high school relationships (mainly that you can be mean to someone until you need them). It’s the only film that manages to make rollerblading look cool, vital, and life-threatening in an appealing way. It’s also a film that includes no less than seven taglines, in which “There are two kinds of people: those who get AIRBORNE…and those who don’t” is only the second most stupid.
Happy birthday, Airborne!