American Flyers was screenwriter Steve Teisch’s spiritual sequel to Breaking Away, often considered to be the greatest cycling film of all time. It’s also director John Badham’s spiritual sequel to Saturday Night Live – another vision of the melancholic and languorous male body of the 70s adapting to a new hyper-regimented 80s world. The plot revolves around a pair of brothers, Marcus and David, played by Kevin Costner and David Grant, who are both avid cyclers. They plan to compete in the “Hell of the West,” a three-stage contest in the Rockies but there’s a catch – their whole family suffers from a rare genetic condition that makes them susceptible to sudden aneurysms. Their father died from it, and Marcus suffers especially acutely from it, but David is also vulnerable to it, which means that any strenuous activity could cost them their lives, making every elite cycling event an act of profound brinksmanship.
From the opening sequence, Badham and Teisch invest cycling with a hyperreal exuberance, using David’s morning ride to unfold a delirious postmodern lifeworld. We start with a paddleboat on the St. Louis River, but this older mode of transportation is quickly absorbed into the simulacral riverboat of the floating McDonalds, or “McBarge,” along the foreshore. As we move from traditional to postmodern space, synth touches gradually emerge from the soft rock textures of the score, and David seems to enter the realm of virtual gaming, dodging and weaving around rubbish trucks and puddles before cycling straight into his elevator, and rapidly dismounting, the wheels still spinning as he ascends. Once he arrives at his floor, he alights once more, riding along the corridors and straight into his apartment, at which point Badham crystallises this flow to a shot of the Gateway Arch as the sun goes down behind it.
It’s one of the quintessential 80s montage openings, clad in a fluorescent heathaze that gives way to a first act that mainly unfolds in dim interior spaces so backlit by glare that it feels like we’re entering a new medium whenever the action does head outside for cycling. Getting on a bike is like launching into outer space, or a new kind of inner space – a personal and geographical frontier that David has tried to map in his double major on cowboy movies and eastern culture. When he has sex for the first time, it’s against a television montage that ends with a rocket being launched into outer space, before the image cuts to static and we transition to Marcus gazing at the haziest sunset so far, feeling his brain through his forehead.
These breathless thresholds seem to betoken an imminent full-body transformation, in which cycling turns into a way of reaching maximal stimulation, becoming-cyborg. Both Marcus and David’s bodies grow more vulnerable as they approach this singularity, while the vertiginous aftermath of the opening sequence sets in motion a chain of dizzy spells that eventually lead to the revelation of their susceptibility to aneurysms. Cyclers here are pioneers on the cusp of a post-human singularity, figured alternatively as sudden death and as science fiction, as a high that could either kill or transcend mortality itself. Along the way, cycling also becomes a portal to a new kind of virtual space, as when David tries his luck on a “torture” treadmill at his local gym. The synth peaks, the montage climaxes, and a new kind of 80s gymscape comes into focus as he nears a running record, the surface of the treadmill elevating all the time, until his body is forced into a bizarre contorted approximation of riding a bike. At this moment David internalises the bike – he is riding a bike without a bike – gesturing towards a new kind of oneiric pleasure-principle that can only be fully satiated within this nascent virtual sphere.
This ushers in one of the features of American Flyers that really distinguishes it from Breaking Away – the rabid and insatiable manner in which it eroticises cycling and the human-bike cyborg. The opening montage sequence features not one but two instances of nudity – first, when David opens a folder of “classy” nude photos of his girlfriend as he giddily ascends in the bike-lift, and then when he casually turns side-on to the camera while changing out of his bike gear. Meanwhile, Marcus’ girlfriend Sarah, played by Rae Dawn Chong, is a research physiologist who fuses sex and sports science, wearing short shorts at work and underpants at home. Yet these erotic spectacles quickly move away from women, and from the unadorned human body, to instead focus on the bike itself as futuristic fetish. In one scene, David drifts into a reverie on Sarah, mumbling to himself on how attractive she is, as he cruises sensually around Marcus’ apartment, only to end up at a picture of his brother’s greatest win. All this cruisey erotic energy is transplanted from women to man’s relationship with bikes.
Like Top Gun, then, American Flyers brims with a queer surplus but is also happy to just run with it. Like Top Gun, too, the film comically concedes that homoeroticism may well be an important ingredient in the perfectability of the male body to a finely-honed machine in the manner required of a new high-tech, ultra-mannequised gym culture. Marcus and David’s gym is the only space that feels commensurate to their bikes, and it’s helmed by an instructor, Jerome, played by Robert Townsend, who consciously revels in homoerotic double entendres: “Once you’re up, keep it up!” As the only actor in the film with an extensive comic pedigree, and the only black male actor in the film, Townsend encapsulates one of the jokes at the heart of this new kind of action film; namely, that the only way to continue perfecting the white male body is to look admiringly at black male bodies as a matter of course, rather than being intimidated or affronted by them. With his words ringing in their ears, Marcus and David invest their own bikes with a deeply homoerotic and oneiric intensity that anticipates the way that cycling would become a displacement point for wider male anxieties in American culture.
All this love for and around cycling climaxes in the third act, which depicts the training runs for the “Hell of the West” and the three races that comprise it. Having spent the first two acts sequestered indoors, Badham immerses us in a cosmic scale of space, full of huge aerial pull-backs that evoke the full curvature of the earth, which now feels like another planet, inhabited only by cyclists. Both the American and Soviet national teams are in attendance, giving the event a global rhythm, while Marcus and David prepare by riding alongside cowboys, evoking a virtual westwards expansion, new horizons that can only be seen by bike. Of the three components of the race, the most dramatic is a “lunarscape” known as the “Tower of the Moon.” This sets off from Golden, Colorado, and moves along the highest paved road in North America, at an altitude most riders have never experienced, and at which no rider can breathe in enough oxygen to cycle at total capacity. Cycling now becomes the first truly supersonic sport, a way of jacking directly into the American technological sublime, in what must be one of the best cycling sequences ever filmed. In one hyper-kinetic camera innovation after another, Badham takes us from the granularity of the asphalt to soaring helicopter perspectives, thereby mirroring the essential drama of the cyclists themselves, who are always yearning here to transcend their physical constrictions and launch into space.
By the time the race reaches its climax, the line of cyclists above the valley has turned into an embodied montage sequence, a collaborative abstraction of the 80s will to montage. Not only have they consummated their pleasure-principle, but they have also discovered their product-principle, their capacity to be commodified into a single spectacle – what we might describe as their inherent capacity to influence in the lexicon of modern social media. And the film not only describes but enacts this, through its collaboration with the American brand that arguably most discovered itself through the 80s – McDonalds. Not only is McDonalds everywhere here, but all the most erotic content of the film is inflected through its menu, as the supersonic speed of the cyclists gives fast food a sublime new valency. David meets his girlfriend in a McDonalds, and first touches her when a french fry and ketchup falls on her leg, at which point he recovers it pointedly and licks his fingers suggestively. The first time the two have sex, they preface it with a discussion of burgers, and reflect on destiny: if she had just ordered a Quarter Pounder, and had been too impatient to wait for a Big Mac, they would never have met. The great discovery of American Flyers, then, is of cycling as a way of maintaining the allure of a new kind of commodity fetish, a new fantasy of what a commodity can be – immediate, all around us, but always revealing more of itself at supersonic speeds.