Even the most ardent nostalgist knows that "Space Jam" is a frantic, mostly shitty commercial for an imaginary version of Michael Jordan. But one scene rings true.
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Friends, with respect: Space Jam is hot garbage, and even people that pretend to love the movie know this in their secret hearts. The Looney Tunes characters are mugged out to twenty, and their constant, antic, fast-cutting energy a light year removed from the expertly paced deadpan of their origins. Characters are rendered in that ugly ass shade-textured late nineties 3D Painting-Style that is supposed to look "Cinematic" but just ends up grinding against spacial logic.
The voice work is uninspired, at best. Michael Jordan, no matter what Chicago-based Jordan-shills Siskel and Ebert say on the matter, is a terrible and thoroughly checked-out actor who floats through the whole movie seeming less human than actual cartoons. It doesn't even work as proper nostalgia, since it rubs its ass all over old Warner Brothers cartoons, which are Actually Good Art. People are nostalgic about Space Jam, and acting excited about the announcement of a sequel possibly featuring LeBron James, but everyone with eyes to see knows all this to be true.
To be fair: some things about the original work a little. Bill Murray and Barkley are two people you actually want to watch say words on a screen under most circumstances. The plot itself is catchy. "Monstars" are a wonderful metaphor for an unstoppable, but still faintly absurd, enemy that undergoes an amoral process to press their superiority into you; it was just sitting there for baseball's steroid era and the Bush Administration to come, and if anything, we underutilized it. The metafictional conceit of the aliens not recognizing the world's best basketball player because he's paying baseball is clever; a 500-page magical realist novel on the topic would be the preferred manifestation of that tale, though. Also, Jordan does a decent Road Runner impression very early in the movie.
It would be disrespectful if I didn't mention the pickup basketball game at the very end, in which Jordan returns the gift of basketball to dudes whose manifested talents he mopped the floor with not five minutes previous. That sequence utilizes some terrific soft-core porn lighting techniques and is in fact still used in Intro to Softcore Pornographic Theory and Practice classes at film schools across this fine nation. That about covers the positive stuff.
Fundamentally, this thing is a burnt sacrifice to Michael Jordan, Basketball Player and Beloved Capitalist Icon. All of the hoary Glorious Symbols of Jordan are worked to death. A young Jordan playing basketball in the driveway and fantasizing about attending UNC while his father extols the game of baseball? Chuh-eck. A scene where Bugs and Daffy travel to the human world so they can retrieve two Nike Brand Basketball Sneakers and The North Carolina Shorts™? Chizz. If that isn't unconvincing enough, this film's Jordan watches Patrick Ewing get hit in the dome with a basketball and doesn't break down laughing at his enemy's misfortune. He hits a hole in one in front of Larry Bird, for chrissake, and doesn't spend the rest of the film gloating about it. The only thing the missing is Jordan being dipped in gold and housed forever as a monument in the White House in front of the portrait of Millard Fillmore.
But there's another side of Jordan the movie illuminates in its sole honest moment, a single flash of insight. At halftime of the pivotal game, with his team on the ropes, Michael Jordan talks to Swackhammer, the proprietor of the Monstars organization. Jordan's team has staged a comeback and brought the game within reach. As Swackhammer chews out his squad, Jordan, without prompting, raises the stakes. If we win, you will return everyone's talent. But if we lose, I, Michael Jordan, will submit and become the main attraction at your cartoonishly evil theme park.
Even Bugs Bunny, the most confident character in all of American culture, is shocked. Michael Jordan, playing in an already very deeply meaningful game, is bringing undue risk onto his own life and livelihood, and for no good reason. The life Swackhammer paints is truly a terror: Jordan will be shackled, literally shackled, to a table to sign nonstop autographs and forced to submit to a series of humiliating one-on-one defeats against children.
The implications of this bet, WHICH JORDAN MAKES TOTALLY OF HIS OWN VOLITION and in exchange for nothing more than the talent of dudes he thoroughly humiliated time after time—not even in exchange for their actual lives, just for the return of their jumpshots—are truly horrifying upon closer examination.
Perhaps he wanted to know that he personally saved the talent of his NBA victims, and use that ultimate domination as mental fuel in future playoff/sex rivalry confrontations? A sick man. More than that, though, this scene challenges us to imagine the ultimate competitor in the history of sports, reduced to a life of tedium and inevitable failure; that man, a brilliant athlete and entrepreneur willfully staring down slavery and all that implies, just to raise the stakes in a basketball game.
In his confusion, Bugs Bunny betrays his ignorance of a somewhat unpleasant truth about His Airness. Jordan was, in no uncertain terms, addicted the astringent juice of absurd stakes. He took blind free throws, went on midrange isolation shooting adventures whose descriptions could line the pages of a lost Homerian epic, placed golf bets that would have had major impacts on the economies of mid-sized nations. He did the three-point shootout even though he was a terrible shooter. He kept, and perhaps still keeps, up a daily war against iPad games.
This is a guy who was so dominant at basketball that he began to regard the game itself as a toy; he tried to move on to baseball, fully aware and informed that becoming anything less than Michael Jordan The Basketball Player at his new gig would have made him an object of popular ridicule. Then, after his perfect second retirement, he did it all AGAIN, returning to the NBA in a severely diminished form, making himself a target for mockery AGAIN, just so he could sip from the chalice one more time, feel that thrill in his crazy-ass bones.
These are not the actions of a man who needs a normal amount of juice to survive. Michael Jordan became the greatest professional basketball player of all time because he was, and is, infinitely thirsty for competition. This is a killing thirst that you wouldn't wish on anyone. But for one, small, strange second in a feature length commercial for "Michael Jordan," Space Jam shows us the great sucking maw at the center of Michael Jordan's being, the monster who cries out for more pressure to devour, even if it may drown him. The movie is a trashy commercial, but there's an unopened banana of truth about its product in there.