Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Retro Review: VIVA KNIEVEL! (1977)

Welcome to another installment of RETRO REVIEW, where where we take a look at films made before the year 2000. Today we review the 1977 action adventure, VIVA KNIEVEL!. Enjoy!

It may seem like the idea of people famous for other pursuits trying their hand at acting is a new phenomenon, but you don't have to look very hard to find old movies that remind us this isn't the case. Viva Knievel! is one example, starring famous stuntman-turned-punchline Evel Knievel in his acting debut. Not so much a serious cinematic effort as another attempt to promote the brand, Viva Knievel! casts Knievel as himself, the so-called "King of the Stuntmen", doing what he does best while also playing the fearless enemy of the wicked and, like Gamera, a friend to little children everywhere. Get your popcorn ready and set your expectations low.

The plot in a nutshell, as it is with so many hero-worshipping projects from the 1970s, is "Evel Knievel Saves the Day". All of the film's various plot threads lead to this end, including reuniting a young boy with his estranged father, inspiring a crippled orphan to walk again, and putting a crooked event promoter on ice. Evel solves all these problems with nothing but his wits, his good looks, and his custom Harley-Davidson.

Is Evel Knievel as good an actor as he is a stuntman? No. No, he is not. Knievel is so lifeless in some scenes he seems to be half-asleep, and in scenes where he does try, he gets stuck spouting dialogue that's embarassing even by 1970s standards: "You! You're supposed to be the head honcho in this hacienda, right!?" Those plot lines I mentioned earlier play out like someone just cribbed all their favorite TV tropes and dumped them into a forgettable TV movie that got mistakenly released in theaters. The story of the estranged father and son only gets a happy ending through a shameless plot contrivance. The story of the crippled orphan is mentioned in only one scene, after the fact.

The story of the crooked promoter, on the other hand, is what moves this story along, though it's no better. Said promoter, one Stanley Millard (Leslie Nielsen, pre-Airplane!), is eager to talk Knievel into going to Mexico to do some events. Why he's so eager is part of his plot: at first, it seems he just wants to get Knievel out of the way (ie, kill him) to clear the path to stardom for his young protoge, an up-and-coming stuntman named Jesse (Marjoe Gortner). But we soon learn that Jesse is just a means to an end, and Millard really wants to kill Knievel so he can use the spectacle of transporting Knievel's remains back to the US as cover to smuggle a load of cocaine.

That's right, he's going to kill Knievel so he can smuggle one load of blow. I get that Millard is playing the stereotypical Greedy Villain who will Stop At Nothing for more money and power, but what was his plan for the second shipment? Was he going to keep coaxing celebrities down Mexico way to have them die in contrived circumstances? We get no clues as to Millard's long game; apparently we were supposed to only hear "he wants to kill Evel Knievel" and be satisfied with that. And that works insofar as it explains why Knievel takes issue with the situation, but you lose if you think about it.

Watching Viva Knievel! through the lens of a movie fan in 2017, it makes sense that the thing that comes to mind in describing what this movie is like is "a cartoon". That's the place you're most likely to encounter storytelling this lazy. For example, you don't normally see a character, established as a more or less stable individual, instantly regress into a drooling, mindless lunatic as soon as he's locked in a sanitarium and then instantly get better again once he's out, in movies today. But that's a thing that happens here.

Since I believe in putting credit where it's due, I will say this in the movie's defense: casting Knievel as himself and repurposing his public persona as his on-screen character was a smart decision in terms of handling the necessary "what-a-guy" scenes that a hero-worship movie requires. The movie's early scenes feature Knievel making appearings, doing shows, and getting fawned over by the press, and that's corny. But Knievel was a famous stuntman, and famous people attract attention, for better or worse. If the movie had cast Knievel as a cop, say, and then tried to tell us that Officer Knievel is one of the finest policemen to ever walk a beat, that would have strained credulity. I find it easier to forgive ego-stroking when it at least starts with what a person is known for. Also, while you may be tempted to mock the fact that Knievel, a professional stuntman, didn't do all his own stunts in this movie, I let it pass. Some of those stunts are meant to end in crashes, and so it makes sense that other stuntmen would pinch hit in those cases. Movie stuntmen can be replaced; there's only one Evel.

Still, though, if you're looking for some vintage hokiness to make fun of, you'll find plenty here. But like I said, don't get your hopes up. If John JB Wilson had decided to launch the Razzies in 1977 instead of 1981, this movie would have cleaned up. There are better Evel Knievel movies out there -- thankfully they're about the man, instead of starring him -- but the only reason to watch this one is to see the legend in the flesh. It's proof that not all Knievel's crashes were on a motorcycle.

Viva Knievel! is rated PG.

Robert's Score: 3 / 10

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