Robert Redford has made a career of playing that roguish character you can't help but like. Women want to be with him, and men want to be him. The man has been in his fair share of classics, but through them all he never truly played an out-and-out villain. Sure, there were characters that weren't on the straight and narrow, but they weren't all bad. Tell me the Sundance Kid isn't the coolest wild west outlaw ever. So maybe never a bad guy, but how about someone you just hate and is incredibly dislikable?
That's 1969's Downhill Racer, a somewhat odd choice for Criterion to release on DVD but who knows what's really going on with DVD/studio releases. Redford plays a character that is by no means a bad guy, but he's clearly not the good guy either. He's interested in only himself and doesn't really care who gets knocked down in the process as long as it benefits him. Besides some other issues I had with the movie, that was the biggest one. Through all his characters, I can say that I like Robert Redford as a star and an actor. Watching him play someone who is so egocentric was a tough pill to swallow.
When a key member of the U.S. national ski team is knocked out with an injury, coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman) is forced to improvise to fill out his roster. He turns to a young skier, Dave Chappellet (Redford), who clearly has the talent to be great but was never able to put it all together. Still two years away from the winter Olympics, Dave joins the team and quickly alienates everyone around him with his interest in himself above all others. But in the process, he starts to win races and creates quite a name for himself. With the Olympics drawing near and his star becoming ever brighter, can Dave get a hold of himself and his ever-growing arrogance coupled with his huge talent?
The story itself is nothing new in relation to a sports movie or any other rags to riches story. It's been done before with the down and out, poor individual gets a chance to amount to something more. There's the inevitable rise to power and of course, that fall down the backside of that hill. For the most part, 'Downhill' does its best to avoid most of the cliches you might have seen in a similar story elsewhere. But it still feels like we've been here before as a viewer. The one detour comes from the ending which certainly surprised me. I'm still mulling it over and not quite sure what to say about it other than I could have thought of a better ending. Still, the whole tone of the Chappellet character has been unapologetic so why mess with it?
Now just because I didn't like Redford's character doesn't mean the character isn't a good one. Redford does an excellent job as this ambitious young skier who wants to be the best at what he does, consequences and repercussions be damned. Through a quick scene with his father we see that his behavior isn't anything new, he's most likely been doing it for years. It's probably Redford's easiest character to hate, but that doesn't take away from his solid performance. Hackman unfortunately is wasted as the ski team's coach, usually having to confront Chappellet about his actions before fading into the background for long stretches. Swedish beauty Camilla Sparv plays Carole, Dave's fling/girlfriend, while Jim McMullan plays Johnny Creech, the ski team's best athlete and therefore Dave's rival, and Karl Michael Vogler plays Machet, a well-to-do businessman with a lot to lose.
Director Michael Ritchie tells his generally plotless story -- it covers almost 3 full years -- with a documentary-like filmmaking style. The skiing sequences (filmed in Austria and Switzerland) are the movie at their best, exciting and fast-paced, as well as the scenes of the event of the downhill race with the crowds gathering, vendors setting up shop, and media preparing to cover the event. An annoying smooth jazz score is played over several of these scenes, but thankfully that part of the score is generally left by the wayside. My one complaint is that obviously Redford and the cast couldn't actually do their own skiing. Thankfully, Ritchie doesn't use any tricks to make it look like they are skiing. He wisely just lets his stunt men do their thing.
For all the good though that comes from the documentary-like storytelling, it goes out the window to a certain point in the non-skiing scenes. It can be dull watching Chappellet brood his way through life, pissing everyone in his life off and not looking like he cares one bit. I'm not saying make him a different character depending on the scene, but by the end of the movie you're rooting against the guy...or at least I was. I WANTED him to lose in the Olympics. As for whether he does win or lose and how you feel about it, check the movie out.
Downhill Racer <---trailer (1969): ** 1/2 /****