On January 2, 1930, director Kenneth Hawks died in a plane crash. Nine years later, his brother, Howard Hawks, made what is still probably the greatest film ever about the danger and excitement of flying, “Only Angels Have Wings”. Its characters were profane (well, as profane as the Hays code allowed), frequently drunk, and nearly always looking for a good time. If they gave any thought at all to emotional or spiritual matters, they did their best to keep it to themselves.
With “Spin” writer-director James Redford puts the emotions right on the table, with flight acting as vehicle/metaphor for a young man’s salvation. Unfortunately, this fatally somber aerial variation on Rebel Without a Cause (drawn from a novel by Donald Everett Axinn) strains for greatness but barely manages to hold our attention.
“Spin” is the story of young Eddie Haley (Max Madore), whose parents die in a plane accident sometime during the forties. His only surviving family is his uncle Frank, an emotionally distant ex-military man (Stanley Tucci). Major Haley soon makes the distance literal. Heading off for distant lands, he leaves Eddie in the care of Ernesto, an employee at his modest Arizona ranch (Rubén Blades), and Margaret, Ernesto’s schoolteacher wife (Dana Delany).
Returning years later, Uncle Frank finds Eddie grown into a strapping but troubled teen on the proverbial brink of adulthood (now played by Ryan Merriman). Margaret and Ernesto have become Eddie’s de facto parents, and they seem to have a strong, loving relationship with the boy. Still the jockish teen can’t take school or much anything else very seriously and he’s constantly in trouble, disrespecting authority figures and getting into fights. The only thing that really seems to interest him is the pretty and intelligent Francesca (Paula Garcés), who lives alone with her abusive drunk of a father (Danny O’Haco) somewhere past the wrong side of the tracks.
And then there’s the movie’s real subject matter — that plane that’s been sitting in the hangar for the entire decade, and a nearly forgotten note written in blood by Eddie’s dying father. The plane represents both a future for Eddie and chance to restore the long broken bond with his uncle.
Along the way, we get occasional stabs at dealing with the racial politics of 1950s Arizona, but they are too muddled to register. There are vague references to prejudice, but no one seems to have a problem with Anglos and Latinos marrying or dating and the issue is dropped. The movie even leaves the ethnicity of its main character open to question. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be very important, but the refusal of “Spin” to decide whether or not racial matters are significant to its story is annoyingly non-specific.
I’m sort of required to mention here that writer-director James Redford is the son of Robert Redford, not that we should hold his superstar parentage against him. In fact, Redford the younger did a decent job of adapting mystery writer Tony Hillerman’s “Skinwalkers” for a PBS television movie directed by Chris Eyre and executive produced by the divine Bob. Still, in his first time directing assignment, James Redford fails badly. “Spin” never gets in gear. Attempts at humor consistently fall flat and some emotionally grisly melodrama comes to late the shock the audience out of its stupor.
In the lead role, newcomer Ryan Merriman is pretty much inert, but the story as written gives him little to work with. Paula Garcés (“Clockstoppers”) does slightly more with her less dull character. It may not be their fault. Even the reincarnations of James Dean and Natalie Wood might have been stymied with this material.
The truly first-rate cast of grown-ups does only marginally better. Stanley Tucci, one of the brightest and funniest actors working, maintains his dignity but does nothing to relieve the boredom in a part that feels as if it was written for papa Redford. The wonderful Dana Delaney does better, managing a few sweetly funny moments. Salsa superstar and character actor Rubén Blades, who once seriously contemplated running for the presidency of Panama, gets a few mild laughs and even picks up a guitar for an all too brief moment of musical relief. Nevertheless, Gene Siskel’s axiom that simply listening to the cast of most movies chatting over dinner would be far more interesting than most movies has never been truer.
Despite a less than original premise, “Spin” still could have been a decent low-key drama. Some of the flying footage is exciting and the Arizona locations are spectacular, but the movie is plagued by a series of wrong choices. Redford’s reliance on the suffocating work of composer Todd Boekelheide only exacerbates matters, emphasizing the well-intentioned solemnity and destroying all else.
Maybe James Redford should have paid more attention to “Only Angels Have Wings.” Its characters face death on a regular basis, only they have the sense not to act as if they’ve already got one foot in the grave.
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