26 March 2010

Movie review: Downhill Racer

Downhill Racer (1969)
Directed by Michael Ritchie. Starring Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv, Karl Michael Vogler, Dabney Coleman.

I hardly watched a moment of the 2010 Winter Olympics. And yet a few weeks after they ended, I decided to watch a dramatic presentation of a Winter Olympics event, one that concludes at the Winter Olympics. Why is this? Can’t I get my thrills from the real thing?

In a word, “No.” I have scant interest in sports. Approaching nil. I’m only interested in sports when talking to my brother, who knows how to fill me in on what’s going on in the athletic world in an entertaining way that I—a SF&F geek and writer—can understand.

However, I do like sports movies. Sports contain inherently great cinematic drama (and comedy) material. Most recent sports movies are pretty terrible, but there are many classics that I love. I’d rather watch Bull Durham or Hoosiers than watch a baseball or basketball game. Because real basketball games don’t come with a Jerry Goldsmith score or Gene Hackman or a completely wasted Dennis Hopper. Imagine the inflation of ticket prices just for adding Dennis Hopper alone.

And speaking of Gene Hackman, the Winter Olympics this year didn’t come with him either. Which is why I preferred to watch Downhill Racer.

None of this makes much sense, but I’ve never made it a personal goal to make sense a hundred percent of the time.

Downhill Racer is the first film from director Michael Ritchie, who would have a long career in comedies, including one of the greatest sports comedies ever filmed, The Bad News Bears. He again worked with Redford in his second film, the political comedy The Candidate. Ritchie died in 2001, and unfortunately his career ended on a dissonant note: his final released movie, an adaptation of the stage musical The Fantasticks, was shelved for five years and finally put into a tiny number of theaters without much notice.

Downhill Racer is certainly no comedy; it’s a drama shot in the dry and quiet style of the emerging “New Hollywood” of the late ‘60s. The same year, Robert Redford turned into a superstar sensation playing the second half of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Downhill Racer, released less than two months after that monster hit, got a bit snowed under because of it and consequently isn’t talked about that much. It’s a fine film, however, delivering some great skiing scenes and a decent story around it that doesn’t try too hard. No crazy historonics, no attempts to throw quotable zingers at the audience, just an interesting and realistic tale about a member of the U.S. ski team who has ambitions beyond his third-tier status.

Redford’s character, David Chappellet, is a “hot dogger” with a tendency to show-off and act brusque and overly competitive with his teammates. If made today, Downhill Racer would portray Chappellet’s rebelliousness with scenes of him snorting mounds of coke, looking for a music record deal, and giving the finger to news cameras while spouting some variation of “I am the greatest!” But Chapellet is a realistic rebel in a sport in which the U.S. had only a minor presence at the time. It’s Redford’s swagger that gives Chapellet’s his hot-shot arrogance that almost turns the whole team against him even as the cameras start to swivel his way. Redford displays why he turned into one of the top superstars of the 1970s; he’s almost effortless at being a regular fellow, looking both handsome and yet believable. Yes, we objectively know its “legendary star Robert Redford” acting in front of us, but subjectively that’s not what’s happening, and this is exactly how it should be for this movie.

If we really want to see superstar Redford, we can go watch The Sting or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. We’re really here for the “downhill” part. The ski scenes are principally shot with handheld cameras (three cinematographers are credited), with the important exception of two extended sequences done from a POV camera looking over the skis as Chappellet rockets down the slopes. These two “helmet cams” make for the most exciting footage in the movie: Chappellet’s breakthrough race that puts him in fourth and makes him the man to watch on the team, and the finale at the Winter Olympics. The rest of the ski scenes have a documentary style that seems a touch tame compared to the technology available today, but it must have looked impressive in 1969 when viewers only had bland, distant TV cameras to show them winter athletics.

The drama off-slopes contains a standard soapy romance, but downplayed so it’s never too distracting, unlike what occurs in Grand Prix, a great film that manages to be great despite no one having anything good to say about what happens off the racetrack. Downhill Racer only deals with Chappellet’s romance with Carole Stahl (Swedish actress Sparv), an assistant to a ski equipment manufacturer who is courting the U.S. team, for as long as it needs—and finds the perfect way to end it while staying with Chappellet’s character. Sparv looks her part, but doesn’t do much beyond provide a “type,” a cultured European woman with her own rules about romance that are much different from Chappellet’s.

It’s now considered a generic statement that “Gene Hackman is good in anything.” But there’s truth to it. Hackman, who wasn’t a leading man at this point in his career, always performs at the same level of dedication, regardless of the material. His coach character isn’t flashy, a style that wouldn’t work for the film, but he’s solid on-the-money all the time and the right counterbalance to Redford. When he tells Chappellet, in the moments before his final run at the Olympics, “You can win this,” it’s the sort of perfect delivery of a simple line that makes all the difference in the cinematic world.

You might have noticed that Dabney Coleman listed in the cast, but this younger and moustache-less version is easy to miss in his part as an assistant coach. “The Man You Love to Hate” persona he would assay into fame hasn’t appeared yet.

The Olympic finale is a nailbiter; Ritchie excels at producing the suspense that any good underdog tale needs to deliver. He also pulls out a neat trick of not one but two down-to-the-wire moments, with the second one coming unexpectedly. There’s a raw edge to the sport excitement here, and it’s something missing from most contemporary sports films. This was also the era of films where it was quite possible for the hero to fail at the end (remember, even Rocky didn’t win the fight with Clubber Lang), so the tension of whether or not Chappellet will get the gold is genuine. I had no idea as he was zooming down the slopes how the film might close, and the double-hit that Ritchie and the script threw my way made it even tenser.

Downhill Racer is an unfussy film, the mark of its movie-making era. It doesn’t have much that’s memorable away from its skiing thrills, but it feels nice as it whisks past: good entertainment that isn’t simply an empty experience.