Monday, June 30, 2014

Movie Monday: Viva Knievel!

What better movie to celebrate July 4th with than the all-american Viva Knievel!?

For those of you who don't know (you poor souls, you), Viva Knievel! is the sole movie-starring role for motorcycling stunt hero and Great American Evel Knievel, who parlayed a career of crashing into things to fame and fortune. As is typical with movies trying to "cash in" on a particular pop culture craze, Viva Knievel! gets there a little late, arriving in theaters a couple of years after Evel had peaked. But that shouldn't dull your enjoyment of this cinematic epic, because in many ways Evel is Forever.
After an opening credits sequence straight out of a Wonder Woman episode, the film proper opens with Evel sneaking into an orphanage late at night (a middle-aged man skulking around a kids' bedroom in the dark, no problem there) to deliver toys for the kids. Not just any toys, though: Evel Knievel toys!

One kid, inspired by Evel, throws his crutches aside and says if Evel can walk away from all those horrible crashes (which he really shouldn't have had if he was any good at jumping over stuff), then he can do! One of the nuns who runs the place chastises Evel for stirring up the kids, but even an agent of The Lord is no match for Evel Knievel! So suck it, God!

Evel then starts to prepare for his next big jump. We meet his mechanic, the once-great-but-now-boozed-up Will Atkins (Gene Kelly, on the road to demolishing a great career), and a reporter named Morgan (Lauren Hutton), who is there to cover Evel's next jump. Because if he crashes (likely) and dies, it'll make a make a great story!
The filmmakers assumed they could give Knievel and Hutton some Tracy/Hepburn sparkling repartee, because they start squabbling from the first scene. But Hutton is no Hepburn, and Evel Knievel is not exactly Spencer Tracy, so all their scenes just seem pissy and weird: Hutton's photographer seems less than professional, and Evel just looks like a big jerk.

Before Evel performs the big jump (which looks like it's taking place at a high school, in front of about a hundred people), he takes a moment out to tell kids: hey, don't do drugs!
With that weirdness out of the way, Evel does the jump--or, more accurately, doesn't: he crashes and is immediately taken to the hospital, leaving all those spectators to wonder why they paid full ticket price for something that would have been a five minute show, at best.

While in the hospital, Evel resists all efforts to return to the game (remember, he's the hero of this movie), despite the urging of his former protegee Jessie (Marjoe Gortner, whose screen presence was as awkward and ungainly as his name). Turns out that there's more to Jesse than meets the perm: he is being backed by some drug runners (one played by Leslie Nielsen!) who want to use Evel's convoy to sneak drugs from Mexico (this was the 70s, was that even illegal then?).

There's a whole subplot involving Will and his estranged son (who is way too young to be the sire of Gene Kelly, who was in his 60s here). Will is a big jerk to the young boy, so he is looked after by fraidy-cat Evel Knievel. Will learns of the plot to have Evel die during his Mexico stunt and the drug smuggling, so some goons knock him out and put him in a mental institution under the care of a corrupt doctor (Dabney Coleman). Evel sneaks into the hospital and rescues Will:
Well, sort of rescues: in a move that Spielberg and Lucas would steal for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Evel leaves Will in the place so the drug runners don't realize Evel is onto them.

Having decided to resume his stunts, he's about to do the big jump in Mexico when Jesse--high on drugs (say no, kids!) confronts him and says he is the best jumper. He knocks Evel out with one punch, climbs on his bike, and does the jump. But because the bike has been tampered with, it crashes, killing Jesse.

Evel finally learns of the whole plot and, and hour in, the film finally delivers something like an action sequence: Evel, astride his motorcycle, busts into the hospital and grabs Will, and off they go to find the caravan (which also features a kidnapped Morgan and Will's son; don't ask).

Evel and Will split up, and our hero stops the drug runners, ending with a nice car crash. Will and his son are reunited, and Morgan realizes she has the hots for Evel. He performs the original stunt scheduled for Mexico, and in the final shot the film freezes on Evel, with the opening theme making a return. The End!

As you might have guessed, Viva Knievel! is a terrible film. Evel, through no fault of his own, is a terrible actor, and has no business being the lead of a major movie. When they made a bio-pic about Evel's life in 1971, they cast George Hamilton in the role. I've never seen that film, but odds are it's better than this, which feels like an extra-long episode of pretty much any cop show from the time. The stunts are okay of course, but almost all the other characters are extremely unlikeable. And for a movie about a motorcycle daredevil, having him try to make jump, fail, and then lay in a hospital bed whining for the middle section doesn't really make you root for the guy.

But I will say this: Viva Knievel! is never boring: I watched it with some friends a few months ago and we had a great time yelling at the screen. And right at the point where you start to get a little bored, it wraps up with some nic explosions. How Mystery Science Theater 3000 never got around to this movie is beyond me.

Viva Knievel!

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