There are many reasons why we go to the movies. There’s the willing suspension of disbelief as we watch superheroes from different generations somehow link up at a specific point in the time-space continuum to fight bad guys. There’s the $18.75 extra medium bag of popcorn (and for just a quarter more, the $19 oversized jumbo bag) with the butter-like topping that is oily enough to lubricate a car engine. Somewhat lower down the list is the sneakers. Sure, no one actually goes to a movie theater because of the prospect of seeing some dope kicks, but that doesn’t mean sneakers haven’t played a prominent role in some excellent films.
That was highlighted with the recent frenzy surrounding Nike’s announcement that it would auction off a scant 89 pair of the famed Air Mag complete with power laces to benefit the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. The Air Mag has been the holy grail for sneaker collectors ever since Back To The Future 2 first came out in 1989. Filmmakers charged Nike designers with creating a shoe that embodied an ‘80s vision of the future. While many of the other concepts presented in the movie have yet to become reality (hoverboards today don’t actually hover), the sneakers have.
As in real life, clothes reveal a lot about a movie’s characters. When you think about some of your favorite roles, the thing that pops into your head after the most quotable lines is the way he or she looked. Whether it’s James Dean’s red jacket in Rebel Without A Cause or Batman’s Batsuit, a character’s wardrobe conveys an attitude and a sensibility. And depending on the character, sneakers can represent an important part of that.
The Air Mag isn’t alone. From Air Jordans to Vans Slip-Ons, sneakers have gotten some important screen time in some important films. Here are the 10 best sneaker moments in movie history.
1. DO THE RIGHT THING
Sneaker: Air Jordan IV
Anyone who has tried to keep white kicks crispy clean can relate to Buggin’ Out and the way he feels when his white cement Air Jordan IV’s get scuffed in Spike Lee’s epic film. The scene is incredible as it cuts from the Jordans to Giancarlo Esposito’s speechless face—and the best part is a lispy Martin Lawrence egging Buggin’ Out on with, “You might as well throw them shits out. Them shits is broke.”
2. BACK TO THE FUTURE 2
Sneaker: Nike Air Mag
“Power laces, alright,” is how Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly expresses his wonder after first stepping into the Air Mags. That wonder hasn’t ceased since the movie first came out. The shoes receive plenty of screen time in the famous Hover Board chase scene, and while shoes with lights are mostly regarded as a gimmick for kids, the Air Mags have always gotten a well-deserved pass.
3. THE SANDLOT
Sneaker: PF Flyers
Part of the innocence of youth is a certain naiveté. So when Benny puts on a pair of “shoes that are guaranteed to make a kid run faster and jump higher” in The Sandlot, you know he believes his PF Flyers will do just that. PF Flyers brought back the shoe’s all-black colorway a couple years ago and has kept it in the line because of its popularity and because “legends never die.”
4. FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH
Sneaker: Vans Slip-On
No film character has ever embodied the surf-skate lifestyle, for better and worse, than Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli. His checkerboard Vans Slip-Ons were so much a part of his signature look that they were even featured on the cover of the movie’s soundtrack. The shoes also proved adept at smacking Spicoli upside the head as a testament to just how wasted he was.
5. FORREST GUMP
Sneaker: Nike Air Cortez
When Tom Hanks’s Forrest Gump runs to the end of the road and then the end of town and then across Alabama and then from coast to coast, it was the Nike Air Cortez that he had on his feet. The classic white sneaker with the red Swoosh is far simpler than today’s high-tech running shoes, but it seems up to the task of logging some serious miles, at least in Hollywood’s imagination.
6. KILL BILL VOL. 1
Sneaker: Onitsuka Tiger Tai-Chi
Characters, male or female, don’t get much more badass than Uma Thurman’s The Bride in the Kill Bill series, and there are few more badass fight scenes than when she is fighting Gogo and the Crazy 88s in Vol.1. The shoes that she kicks ass in are Onitsuka Tigers. Originally designed for the more meditative tai-chi, Thurman deploys them in more brutal forms of the martial arts.
7. SPACE JAM
Sneaker: Air Jordan XI
With its patent leather upper inspired by tuxedo shoes, the Air Jordan XI is one of the most revered Jordans of all time. And at the top of the list of the top XIs is the Space Jam. The black upper, with a white midsole and clear outsole still sell out in a flash whenever the Jordan Brand brings them back, which it will do to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the film this year. The fact Jordan wore them when he took off from half court for the greatest dunk in movie history only adds to their allure.
Sneaker: Reebok Alien Stomper
While appearance is important, sneakers are inherently purpose-built shoes. They are designed to help athletes score goals or, in the case of James Cameron’s 1986 film Aliens, stomp aliens. Sigourney Weaver’s character wore the Reebok Alien Stomper and they took the term “high top” to a whole new level.
9. WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP
Sneaker: Nike Air Command Force
The Air Command Forces were actually David Robinson’s signature shoe, but they might as well have been Billy Hoyle’s. Woody Harrelson’s character in White Men Can’t Jump sported the high top hoops shoes with a custom fit system. That should have been a clear sign that Hoyle was no chump on the blacktop. Instead opponents got tricked by the goofy hat and other clothes only to end up hustled.
10. WAYNE’S WORLD
While most product placement in Hollywood movies tries to be discreet, the obvious shilling in Wayne’s World is what makes it stand out in a good way. In a panning shot that shows Dana Carvey’s Garth Algar completely decked out in the most in-your-face Reebok gear available at the time, he delivers the hilariously ironic line, “It’s like people only do things because they get paid, and that’s just really sad.”