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  Viva Knievel! Evel, Aye
Year: 1977
Director: Gordon Douglas
Stars: Evel Knievel, Gene Kelly, Lauren Hutton, Red Buttons, Leslie Nielsen, Cameron Mitchell, Frank Gifford, Marjoe Gortner, Eric Olson, Sheila Allen, Albert Salmi, Dabney Coleman, Ernie F. Orsatti, Sidney Klute, Robert Tafur
Genre: Drama, Action, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  3 (from 1 vote)
Review: It's late at night in the orphanage, and the little boys are asleep, but what's this? A shadowy figure pushing a large box in front of him into the dormitory? He approaches one of the beds and whispers to wake him up, but it's all right because he's famed stunt motorcycle rider Evel Knievel and he has brought the children presents of his stunt toy merchandise to play with. They all gather round excitedly as he hands out the goodies, and one child shows his gratitude by walking without the aid of his crutches - it's a miracle! Then Sister Charity appears, scolding Evel for waking the boys up, so he has to leave.

And just as well, because he has a big stunt to perform the next day. Viva Knievel was the hero-worshipping vehicle for the world's most celebrated human crash test dummy, and Warner Bros, who produced the film, expected it to clean up at the box office. Unfortunately for them, 1977 was not only the year this was released but also the year its star went to prison for severely beating up his biographer and publicity manager with a baseball bat, an act that didn't make him seem quite so heroic, and more deeply unpleasant and out of control. So already the bandwagon was grinding to a halt.

This left the film all at sea, but even if had been a hit it's doubtful it would have gone down in history as anything but a puffed up vanity project. It was notable, however, for the amount of hasbeens in the cast, as the curiously charisma-free Evel, playing "Himself", is surrounded by the calibre of star that puts his movie on the level of the average seventies television pilot. And funnily enough, the stunts resemble the kind of action you would see on an episode of CHiPs. Leading the cast of "must have needed the money" actors is Gene Kelly in a depressingly downbeat performance.

Kelly is Will, Evel's mechanic, an alcoholic who is estranged from his young son Tommy (Eric Olson, who looks better suited to playing his grandson) after his wife died in childbirth. Big-hearted Evel sets up a reunion but it doesn't go well - Will just doesn't want the boy around - so yet another distracting subplot forges ahead. The main narrative is particularly convoluted, involving a plot to kill Evel while he's putting on a show in Mexico and then transporting drugs back to the United States in his trailer, but never fear, the baddies never get as far as killing him; Evel had a line in doing that to himself, anyway.

If there's one effective thing about Viva Knievel it's that it matches the monstrous ego of the man, and it appears the filmmakers knew what we wanted to see: crashes. Just as in real life, the daredevil smashes up his bike and his body, here in a stunt that has him attempting but failing to jump over some lions (yeah, it is a lot like that episode of The Simpsons). Actually, it wasn't Evel performing the stunts in the film because it would have been an insurance nightmare, but we get the spirit of the man's act nevertheless. There's also a rival rider to contend with, in the unlikely shape of Marjoe Gortner, but he redeems himself when he takes Evel's place in a stunt orchestrated to go wrong by the villains. Really, the lengths the film goes to when putting its dodgy star on a pedestal are ridiculous, there's even an anti-drugs message to stick in the throat, and in those star-spangled outfits the superhero parallels are there for all to see. File under "amusing for the wrong reasons". Music by Charles Bernstein.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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