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Things I've Found 6A (Is John Frankenheimer Really The Best We Got, Or, Why Can't Anyone Make a Good Auto Racing Movie?)—11/28/2001

by Mark Rose

That’s a rhetorical question by the way. I don’t really know why we haven’t ever seen a great auto racing movie. Think about it. All the other big sports have great movies made about them. Football (Brian’s Song, Paper Lion), baseball (Bull Durham, Major League), hockey (Slapshot), basketball (Hoosiers), soccer (Fever Pitch), hell even Australian Rules Football has a great movie (The Club) but auto racing? Well, there’s Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix which is pretty good, Heart Like a Wheel which is underrated, and Steve McQueen in LeMans which is decent, and A Man and a Woman which won the 1966 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. But that’s it. And all those movies are more than 20 years old!

Since then, we’ve had Days of Thunder and Sylvester Stallone’s Driven. Hardly candidates for the American Film Institute’s Hall of Fame. But why?? The stories are there, the drama is there, the suspense and danger is all inherently present in the sport, why is it so difficult to create a filmic story that is truly engaging around people in machines traveling more than 200 mph? Hollywood does get lazy. And it’s easy to assume that the reason people like auto racing in general is because of the wrecks. So some movies tend to concentrate in that direction (the “Trouble In Turn One” syndrome) and they end up becoming nothing more than frivolous highlight films. Some movies concentrate on the story at the expense of the racing, using it merely as a backdrop, which frankly is better than nothing but you could do better. Others (like the ones mentioned above) try to vacillate between the two poles, and end up with a mishmosh that doesn’t hold together, have bad storyline, and cheat fans of the drama of racing.

It’s there for the right filmmaker. Sylvester Stallone tried most recently with his look at American open-wheeled racing via the CART series in Driven, and while he failed, he didn’t fail as spectacularly as one might have thought. The film is very stylishly photographed and directed by Renny Harlin, and there are some wonderful cinematic moments (the driving in the rain, the eyes of the drivers in their helmets). The acting is almost universally a pile of shit with only Estella Warren even trying in her role. Burt Reynolds loses all his credibility from Boogie Nights as he chews through most of the scenery here (and looks like he has had a stroke with half his face pulled so taut his eyes are bulging). Gina Gershon is completely lame, Stallone is . . .well, he’s Stallone. The racing action is great and exciting (with real-life CART announcer Paul Page giving the voiceover but not getting to play himself in the movie) and the special effects for the most part are stunning (no, most of those guys really don’t fly three hundred feet up into the air, explode in a fireball, then land in a pond). But for some reason, Stallone felt it acceptable to play around with the realism (the season ends in Detroit which is about the worst track in the world, Germany is a road course when it’s actually an oval, certain tracks are shown when they’re supposed to be racing somewhere else, and one of the drivers seems to switch between two differently numbered cars at will). There are so many problems with the film it isn’t worth it to list them out.

But on top of all that, I enjoyed the movie. Yes I know, we’re probably now living in Bizarro world where the Earth is square and Anti-Superman isn’t afraid of kryptonite, but shoot, this racing film is about all us gearheads have. And it was lots better than Days of Thunder. There’s some decent pathos in Stallone who plays a washed-up racer getting a last chance to be on a team, but who must play second driver to the brash young rookie. There are some wonderful movie moments where the fantasy of film mixes with the realism (as in the movie Three Kings) to get a point across: the blending of choral music with an almost techno backbeat just before the last race is truly brilliant. But right when you think it’s good, it all comes apart. For every great scene (raindrops hitting a driver’s face screen), there’s a load of spooge (pat emotional outcomes, drivers shuttled in and out of the car on a daily basis with no qualifying even). Driven is a failure, but it was an entertaining failure, and showed the way for the future. I’m not giving up on the belief that a great movie about auto racing could still be made.

Perhaps, instead of a film, it needs to be a weekly television dramatic series, which would mimic the way the season actually works. Perhaps the sport just needs a director who has a brain bigger than a pea (I know I’m asking a lot from Hollywood, but let’s dream, shall we?). It’s really there for the taking. All the screenwriter has to do is not speak down to the racing fans (who will make up the biggest part of your audience), and provide enough of a real story to please the non-racing moviegoers. Doesn’t sound so hard, but it must be because we haven’t seen anything that measures up to the mark.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you know of a racing movie I need to see. Let me know. Until then, I’m giving a few props to Sly himself. He didn’t make the world’s greatest movie and the last 3 minutes are about the most painful piece of Shirley Temple crap you’ll ever want to see, but at least he tried. And that’s more than I can say for most movies out there.