Thursday, July 20, 2006
I have spent many hours watching Moto GP races on video, and I can tell you they are very good entertainment. My little phase came in the early 1990s, courtesy of a boyfriend who took up motorcycle racing. He was poor company during that time, complaining throughout about the price of tires and other barriers to his stardom. But the videos were fabulous. They were BBC productions narrated by excitable commentators whose voices would rise to improbable heights whenever the action heated up, as it often did between the sport’s two American leaders.
“Un-be-LIEVable!” one would shriek. “Kevin Schwantz has PASSED Wayne RAI-ney in the EIGHTH TUHN! The PEPsi SuzUKI is now LEADing the MARLboro YAmaha down the STRAIGHTAWAY!”
And then Schwantz would crash, because that’s what he always did, unless he won, and Wayne Rainey would go on to dominate the race and the season, because that’s what he always did. It was perfection versus flawed brilliance.
I could hardly decide between them. Which was my man? Rainey was gorgeous and rode with uncommon intelligence, carving fast clean lines with nothing wasted. Schwantz, on the other hand, was a grinning boy genius riding hell-bent for leather with brass balls, nine lives and occasionally disastrous judgment. Two riders, two life philosophies, two thumbs up.
Director Mark Neale didn’t have the luxury of a ready-made rivalry like that for The Doctor, The Tornado and The Kentucky Kid, his documentary about the Moto Grand Prix’s return to Laguna Seca last year. And, to his credit, he didn’t try to fabricate one. That bit of honesty makes for a structurally wobbly film—it’s really about three guys (though not the three in the title) who are an awful lot alike and kind of get along, so where’s the conflict? But Neal makes it work with dexterous pacing, intriguing interviews and great footage of the race itself. At one point I was actually biting my nails even though I knew the ending.
One problem dogs the film, however. It’s similar to a problem in Faster, Neale’s 2005 MotoGP film, which hinged on the animus between Valentino Rossi and Max Biaggi, and took the easy tack of demonizing Biaggi. In the new movie, the cheesy ploy is a sentimental card played over and over again in the person of Nicky Hayden’s gravel-voiced father Earl, a former dirt-bike rider whose too-frequent appearances are flogged for drama that they can’t deliver.
This is a marvelously entertaining yarn nevertheless, about a remarkable group of athletes competing against each other on a notoriously difficult track. The conflict is between each rider and the relentless deviltries of Seca itself.
Hayden, the Kentucky Kid, describes the track’s notorious Corkscrew in his sleepy, musical drawl: “All you see is the sky…it’s like a roller coaster. Once you turn in, you gotta have the confidence just ta flick it right and let the suspension load up to open the throttle.” Colin Edwards, the title’s Texas Tornado, says the Corkscrew’s nothing compared to the sneaky high-speed twist right in front of the stands. “Honestly, Turn 1 is a hell of a lot more scary,” Edwards says “Turn 1 you’re in fifth gear.”
Neale takes us on a turn-by-turn tour of the track through the riders’ eyes via bike-mounted cameras, then gets to a chronological telling of events. The drama of successive practices is interspersed with character development. We see footage of Hayden winning a hottest bachelor contest on TV, watch Edwards driving a bumper car with his little girl, and see Neale favorite John Hopkins endurance training on a bicycle.
Somewhere in the movie Hopkins usurps Valentino Rossi as the third man in the film’s titular triumvirate. The Doctor—who is the greatest racer alive, and also incredibly charming and charismatic—is relegated mostly to grousing about the track while much time is lavished on Hopkins, who becomes the irresistible soul of the film. One of the best scenes happens after the race, when the camera finds the normally upbeat Hopkins in an unguarded moment, a world of dark struggle in his sharp-featured face as he contemplates his disappointing eighth-place finish.
The hero of the film, if there is one, is Edwards, who scrapped his way up from eighth place to second. And in this most American of films, with its unfettered adoration of the home team, it falls to the even-keeled Edwards to speak the truth about the Italian phenom (who arrives this weekend in Monterey having just won the 2006 German Grand Prix with a broken hand). All the old champs have been great, Edwards says. “But that term of ‘greatest of all time?’ Valentino has definitely got my vote. What does he have? I wish I could tell you. I’d try some of it.”
THE DOCTOR, THE TORNADO AND THE KENTUCKY KID ( * * * )
Directed by Mark Neale. • Starring Nicky Hayden, Colin Edwards and John Hopkins. • Not rated, 95 min. • At the Golden State Theatre Friday and Saturday nights at 8:30pm for free.