With Dickie Davies on stand-by, we return to the world of sport to cast a critical eye over Downhill Racer, Any Given Sunday, Warrior, 42, The Way Back, and Schumacher in our continuing effort to find out which sport is best. There’s only one way to find out. Listen in!
The debut feature of director Michael Ritchie, 1969’s Downhill Racer sees Robert Redford play David Chappellet, a largely unknown yet naturally gifted and ambitious alpine skier who finally has the chance to make his mark on the US national team when injury strikes the roster. Headed by coach Claire (Gene Hackman), the team are determined to shed their reputation as perennial underachievers and take on the big boys of Europe on the slopes of Austria at a forthcoming event.
Chappellett does little to endear himself to his teammates, not that he pretends to have designs on doing so; just one eye on individual achievement and the other, more often than not, focused largely on the many fine looking women at the periphery of their winter sport. It’s an attitude that frustrates Claire, and it is this emotional fulcrum on which the often unbearable tension and exquisite drama of Downhill Racer hinges.
Or at least it does in the “Craig Cut” I was imagining half an hour into the runtime. And then really
anticipating at the hour mark. And then scratching my head about at 90 minutes. And then lamenting the absolute absence of ten minutes later as the credits rolled. Yes folks the Craig Cut of Downhill Racer is a thing of wonder, and much more in keeping with the expectations raised for me by someone who now finds their contact details conveniently “lost” from my phone. Who dis? It’s the guy you owe an hour and forty plus change. The reality of Downhill Racer as it presents itself is quite baffling, especially considering the near universal critical acclaim lauded upon it, and I’d love to at least explain the plot a little further, only there isn’t much more to say.
Chappellet races, gets better, irritates his teammates, chases an entirely under-utilised Camilla Sparv who plays Carole, the PA of a renowned ski manufacturer, and repeat, until eventually the movie concludes with Chappellet winning The Big Race not by being the best in the field, but by watching the person who is better than him take a dry bath a couple of hundred yards from the finish line.
Not dramatic enough to be a drama, not abstract enough to be performance art, Downhill Racer just kind of…is. Granted a 32 year-old Robert Redford is astonishing to look at, particularly in a roll-neck sweater, but he’s also an entirely unlikeable presence who isn’t held accountable for his attitude in any respect whatsoever, besides perhaps being blown off by Carole which upsets him for all of five minutes before he’s off eyeing up his next conquest.
This is a strange beast and I’m very unhappy because on paperI’m supposed to love it. Release the Craig Cut!
Oliver Stone has had a, let’s politely say interesting career, full of interesting choices and statements, particularly in his latest interesting role as Putin apologist. It’s kinda strange, then, to go back to watch him tell a story like this, which, visual flair and talent aside, is a relatively standard sporting story, set in the Certainly Not The National American Football League.
Alisdair Pacino’s Tony D’Amato plays the venerated coach of the Not Miami Dolphins, but it seems the glory days for both him and the team are in the rear view mirror. There’s pressure from the club’s owner, Cameron Diaz’s Christina Pagniacci to change things up, but change comes anyway when an injury to Dennis Quaid’s Jack “Cap” Rooney, long time starting quarterback, and his second string replacement sees the third stringer, Jamie Foxx’s “Steamin” Willie Beamen thrust into the limelight,
Underprepared and unused to the situation, Beamen initially stumbles but soon proves his chops, with the team starting to pick up wins. The success and adulation quickly goes to Beaman’s head, and he butts heads with the rest of the team’s larger than life characters and team cohesion evaporates. D’Amato wants to bring Rooney back to stabilise the ship, but Christina would rather keep the wagon hitched to the media darling Beamen, up to the point of “encouraging” James Woods’ Dr. Harvey Mandrake to interpret medical results in a way that more benefits the team.
There’s a number of other subplots, tensions and character interactions that I’ll leave either to Wikipedia summaries or the viewer, because it’s well worth taking a look at this film if you’ve not done so already. There’s an impressive array of talent in front and behind the camera on this production, and it comes across as a highly kinetic, punchy skim across a season of on-field action, character interactions and rivalries that’s an entertaining watch.
I could argue that it’s fallen foul to the usual mathematics of many characters and a limited, well, limited-ish run time, so it’s not much more than scratching the surface of everyone, with arguably even Pacino and Foxx being underserved, but it’s bombing along so fast it’s hard to notice that until the credits role.
It’s by no means a story you haven’t heard before, but it’s a solid enough basis to bounce some flamboyant characters and solid performances off, and that’s good enough for me.
I imagine it’s unintentional (Scott can correct me otherwise), but mixed martial arts film Warrior is the first of two Gavin O’Connor films on our roster tonight. This first sees Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as two estranged brothers who, after decades, are reunited when they both enter a high-value, winner-takes-all MMA tournament in Atlantic City.
The leadup to this tournament (which, by the way, despite having a $5 million dollar purse, seems to be arranged on an entirely last-minute, ad hoc basis, but don’t think about it, mmmkay?) fills us in on the brothers. Tommy (Hardy) and his mother left their alcoholic and abusive father when he was a teenager and moved to the West Coast, and he largely disappeared. Then, one day, he turns up on his father’s doorstep, being elusive about his past, and asks him to help him train for this Sparta tournament, training being the one thing he believes his father was any good at.
Meanwhile, his elder brother, Brendan (Edgerton), lives a happy life with his wife and two daughters, and, having had a not enormously successful UFC career, is now a high school physics teacher. But financial concerns leave him needing to return to the ring, something which initially gets him suspended from school, making his situation worse. He therefore doubles down on his MMA training, like a smart man, and by narrative luck ends up being a late minute replacement for Sparta. Convenient.
Tommy, Brendan and Paddy, their father, cross paths at the tournament, with Paddy seeking absolution, and his sons uninterested in same, though something of a rapprochement is growing by the film’s finale which, in a narrative that will have surprised nobody whatsoever, sees the brothers meet in the tournament final.
Unlike Any Given Sunday or Downhill Racer, it’s easy to find someone to root for (it’s Brendan, obviously), though I wonder if it’s just from being outside of the United States that I so readily see the true enemy within the film, which is the despicable US healthcare system, as much of Tommy’s bitterness stems from the horrible death his mother suffered because she didn’t have health insurance, and Brendan is risking his wellbeing in the cage because he can’t pay the third mortgage he had to take out to pay for his infant daughter’s heart surgery. But I’ll stop myself there otherwise I’ll be here all night.
Very much changing the subject, then, I can’t remember when the whole “Mumblin’ Tom Hardy” thing took hold, so I’m not sure if this film from 2011 started it or perpetuated it, but given the very meta feel of it I’m going for the latter: of all the actors you could cast to play the father of someone with a reputation for mumbling performances, is there anyone more apt than Nick “What was that? Could you repeat that line please?” Nolte? It strikes me as very, very knowing. But, hey, I could be wrong.
Where I’m sure I’m not wrong is in thinking that Gavin O’Connor is a fan of the Rocky films, as there are only many, many clues throughout Warrior to suggest this. Despite playing into Hardy’s mumblecore delivery by having one character refer to him as Rocky, Tommy is, clearly, Ivan Drago, with his taciturn demeanour and brutal demolition of opponents (though that veers towards Bolo Yeung in Bloodsport territory), and Brendan, the unfancied late challenger, with his incredible ability to take a pounding and still emerge victorious, is Balboa (I promise you that neither of these comparisons is even the most minor of stretches). This isn’t a criticism; it just requires comment.
As a whole, the film is pretty enjoyable, though undeniably clichéd and emotionally manipulative. Edgerton’s sympathetic Brendan is the heart of the film, though Tommy earns some sympathy himself, especially as his backstory is teased out. Paddy, on the other hand, while a pretty good performance from Nolte (I even made out quite a few of his lines), is a wife beater and can go to hell, though O’Connor does offer him the least redemption.
Where it suffers most for me is the action, though it’s hardly different from many other films in the genre. Hardy, who made this around the same time as he was portraying Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, is an absolute unit, and there are some visceral and brutal shots on display, with Edgerton getting his fair share, too. But the editing and camerawork get in the way after a while. I know that it’s necessary as the fights aren’t real and the edits must sell contact, or at least hide the lack thereof, but the action is shown in a way that the actual sport absolutely isn’t: it might be nice to stay on one shot long enough to see some actual technique.
That may have been an unrealistic request, though my other, which is to entirely remove the amateur hour Moby Dick audiobook device that permeates the film, is more reasonable. However, I still enjoyed Warrior quite a lot and, unlike the superior Batman-related fighting film from the year before this, The Fighter, you don’t have to contend with the director being a scumbag. Yay!
You know what the tale of an African American sporting legend who smashed race barriers at huge personal cost needs? A middle-aged white guy to direct it and a PG-13 certificate!
Jackie Robinson is without doubt one of the greatest figures in sporting history; the first black man to transcend the negro leagues to play Major League Baseball at a time where lynching was still practiced, and looking the wrong, random redneck in the eye was a death sentence. Nowadays we have the police to thank for carrying out those atrocities, but in post-war US the greatest distance between two points was the crowd’s love for baseball and their hatred of people of colour.
The late Chadwick Boseman here plays Robinson, just a year before he’d go on to portray another cultural icon as James Brown in Get On Up. Criminally I am completely unfamiliar with Boseman’s work outside of the Marvel universe, a state of affairs I shall have to correct on the evidence of his performance here which is, in spite of a mostly perfunctory script from director Brian Helgeland, really, really good. Clearly sanitised to within an inch of it’s certificate, 42 couldn’t possibly hope to convey the true struggle Robinson and those who followed him faced, and if Helgeland’s words and direction set up a few too many manipulative, saccharine moments, it is Boseman who carries them through convincingly in a quietly dignified though nonetheless powerful performance.
Somewhat predictably Nicole Beharie is given very little to do as Jackie’s wife Rachel, and I would have liked to have spent a lot more time around their dinner table that out at the ball game, as I suspect the true power in Robinson’s tale would be more likely found in the dynamics of their relationship; if behind every great man there is a strong woman then Rachel Robinson must have been an absolute powerhouse to her husband.
Most surprising, and testimony to how far under my radar this movie has been, it was the presence of one Harrison Ford Esq. which threw me for a loop, not least of all because he brought his acting clothes today. If Ford’s portrayal of Branch Rickey is perhaps a little cartoonish at times it is nonetheless the most pleasant surprise of the movie for me, and it makes me wish he did more of this kind of thing rather than endangering everyone by flying his crop duster or whatever it is incredibly badly.
42 is entirely serviceable and arguably a good deal more enjoyable than it probably ought to be. There is the potential here for an incredibly powerful and resonant drama, particularly in today’s cultural money, were it not so largely sanitised to the point where one wonders what exactly Helgeland wanted to achieve.
Ben Affleck’s Jack Cunningham is a just about functional alcoholic, living alone and working in the construction industry, being scraped up off the floor of the local bar and deposited home every night for the cycle to continue. His family are concerned about him, including his separated wife, but Jack’s not willing to confront his demons, just attempt to drown them in booze.
He’s given an unexpected reason to care about life when he’s called on to step in to coach his old high school basketball team, which after some soul searching he agrees to. Said team, the Bishop Hayes something-or-others, are not very good and lose a lot, and don’t work together as a team, and, well, I’m sure you see how this is going.
While Jack is putting the team on a winning path, reworking their play style to suit their strengths and ultimately challenging for the play-offs, it seems that he’s also putting his life back on a winning path, until past trauma resurfaces and knocks him back on his ass and into a bottle. Perhaps the main deviation from formula in The Way Back is that it’s not exactly presenting a simple character redemption arc and a happy ending, as much as the overbearingly schmaltzy music would have it, instead it’s offering the possibility of a happy ending, for both Jack and also his team.
A lot of the story and a lot of the characters we’ll meet in The Way Back will have some degree of familiarity to anyone who’s been watching films for any length of time, but that’s not say that the classics don’t continue to work. The kids prove to be a fairly endearing bunch, and while the “being whipped into shape” sequence isn’t winning originality awards it’s a fun stretch, bookended by a pretty solid performance from Batman as a believably traumatised man incapable or unwilling to deal with his grief.
I don’t think I’ve a lot more to say about The Way Back other than perhaps to empathise that I enjoyed it a great deal. Sure, as I’ve repeatedly mentioned it’s not breaking any molds, but it’s a really solidly put together movie and it’s well worth adding to your shortlist.
I don’t know if this was just the luck of the draw, but I suppose it’s fitting that the big F1 fan amongst us should end up talking first about this documentary about the legendary German Formula 1 driver, Michael Schumacher. Unfortunately, I now think I’m precisely the worst choice among us to do so, because I know most of this already.
Produced with the blessing and cooperation of his family, who have been exceptionally private and reserved since the former driver suffered a traumatic brain injury while skiing in December 2013, Hanns-Bruno Kammertöns, Vanessa Nöcker and Michael Wech’s documentary attempts to create a portrait of a quiet, dedicated family man who also happened to be one of, and arguably, the, most skilled and committed practitioners that his sport has ever seen.
Not dissimilar in style and tone to Asif Kapadia’s Senna documentary, the film begins with Schumacher’s astonishing F1 debut in Belgium in 1991, then hops back to the driver’s modest beginnings racing on the go-kart circuit managed by his parents, and thereafter follows a largely linear course through his career, his first two world championships with Benetton, his rivalries with Damon Hill and Mika Häkkinen, his move to Ferrari and the cementing of his status as a god to Italian motorsport fans, with a mix of archive footage and contemporary interviews with his family, his managers and his fellow competitors. All pretty standard stuff in that regard, of course.
I enjoyed Schumacher, as much as it left me rather sad given the great man’s condition following that tragic skiing accident a now scarcely believable eight years ago, but for me there’s not a lot new here. While I said that much of this wasn’t new to me, I did appreciate the insights into his personality away from the track, which help to paint a better, fuller picture of him as a person, not just a sportsperson. Similarly, the unknown to me, or at least unremembered by me, stories of him driving less than stellar-quality go-karts with used tyres, and still beating his competitors provided a compelling foundation to his work in helping to restore Ferrari to greatness, with his ability to deliver results he had no business being able to deliver with the tools he had at his disposal when he first arrived there.
It’s reasonably even-handed, if not exactly warts and all, not shying away from some of Schumacher’s less salubrious on-track moments, and features honest appraisals from the likes of Ross Brawn, Michael Schumacher’s technical director for a large part of his F1 career. What it lacks, for me, is some emphasis on quite what made him so exceptional, like his superhuman ability to consistently drive a huge number of qualifying-level laps in a race, or his impact on the drivers that followed him, Schumacher having been notable for an intense training and fitness regime that was unlike anything the sport had seen before.
Before I finish and find out what the two people who, I presume, don’t already know all of this thought of the film, I will mention the one area where my familiarity is actually helpful to me, and a drawback to others, and that’s knowing whose opinions are worth lending weight to. Of all of the terrible and stupid sports commentators I have had to suffer over the years (and let’s be scrupulously fair, here – it’s nearly all of them), none may be worse than James Allen, part of ITV’s roundly-derided coverage when they had the rights to the sport in the UK, and who makes a number of contributions to this documentary. The man is an absolute gimboid, so calibrate yourself appropriately.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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