This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
Dennis Rodman is Daffy Duck. Dickey Simpkins is Elmer Fudd. Jud Buechler is the sexy Lola Bunny ("sound . . . fundamentally sound . . . although he lacks some of her features"). Ron Harper ("he'll kill me if I say this") is Porky Pig. Phil Jackson is Foghorn Leghorn ("I say, I say . . .").
And Michael Jordan is Bugs Bunny.
After spending the off-season acting with the Looney Tunes stars, Jordan couldn't help spotting some parallels with his Chicago Bulls teammates.
"Space Jam," his new Warner Bros. release, combines Michael in live action with Bugs and friends in cartoon form. After the movie's press premiere here over the weekend, he mused Monday evening about the traits they share.
"Bugs was kinda like me: Funny, pulls pranks all the time, light-hearted. . . ."
The movie had been applauded by visiting press from all over the country, and Michael was in a good, and relieved, mood. In the film, which will open Nov. 15, he plays himself, more or less: A baseball player in mid-slump who is kidnapped by Bugs and the Looney Tunes gang to play on their basketball team in a showdown match with the evil aliens of Moron Mountain, an amusement park in outer space.
At stake: The future of the Earth, of course.
Even the cartoon characters on the Moron team reminded him of real-life counterparts, he said. "Some of that physical play, that was the Detroit Pistons, the New York Knicks. And my halftime inspiration speech to the Tunes, about how you got to fight fire with fire, you have to bully the bully - that wasn't far off from some of the things I've said at halftime."
How good an actor does he think he is?
"I'm a learning actor. I can't say I'm good. This is a whole new arena. I've done commercials, which means four-hour, six-hour days. This is a long process, very meticulous, especially when you're trying to match up with an animated character you can't see."
It was a help, he said, to work with director Joe Pytka, who has directed him in many commercials.
Although some of Jordan's scenes are with living humans such as Bill Murray, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing, most of them are with Bugs, Daffy, and the morons from space. He played those scenes against a blue backdrop, so the cartoon characters could be drawn in later.
"They had these little people with green outfits moving around, trying to make sure my eye level was in the right place," he said with a grin.
The movie has a lot of sly fun with Michael's baseball career, including a scene in which the opposing pitcher is such a Jordan fan that he whispers tips to him while he's at the plate.
"There was some truth to that," Jordan said. "It happened in Phoenix, in winter ball. I gave the catcher a couple of autographs before the game, and when I'm standing at the plate, he whispers, `You're gonna get a fastball.' I didn't trust him, but sure enough, it was a fastball. Then he tells me to look for a pitch right down the middle. I told the director, and they wrote it in the script."
Isn't that against the rules of baseball? Could the umpire hear the catcher whispering?
"I'm pretty sure it is, but I gave the umpire a couple of autographed balls, too."
Jordan said he'd been offered many film projects but took "Space Jam" because he got to play himself. "I didn't know how difficult that could be. I got some pointers from actors I know, like Stan Shaw, T. K. Carter and Damon Wayans. Now I want to take a step back and evaluate. I'd like to make acting a hobby, learn more about it. It would be a pressure situation to carry a whole movie by myself."
"Space Jam" is G-rated, and I wondered if Jordan, with his image to think about, would be comfortable playing a villain, maybe in an R-rated movie.
"It depends. I don't want to go too far away from my personality. I wouldn't mind being a villain, but I'd like to be a funny villain. I smile so much, I don't know if I could do a stern, serious Arnold Schwarzenegger look."
As for studying his new craft at first hand, Jordan said there was a time when he simply couldn't go to the movies, "because even the ushers with flashlights would be creeping down the aisle, asking for my autograph. Now I have a system. I sneak in five minutes late, park my car by the exit, never go on weekends. . . ."
Although Jordan is one of the best-known people on the planet, he's not a star in the same sense as a movie star, and he said he isn't sure he wants to be.
"The demands are far more than in basketball. I know I don't want to move to Los Angeles, and I don't want to live the lifestyle of a lot of the actors. I like being able to mingle with the public, being accessible to a certain extent. I don't want to ever get isolated. A lot of times movie actors isolate themselves, probably because of the mystique they need for their profession, but as a basketball player, it's enhanced my career to be accessible to the public. It's always a danger when you change that, and I think the public can detect it, quickly."
One of the funniest sequences in the film occurs when the morons from space suck up the basketball talents of Ewing, Barkley and the other NBA stars. They become so hapless they can't even hold a basketball, much less catch one.
"I wish that would happen during a season," Jordan observed.
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