Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Bad Movie of the Month: Viva Knievel!

I may not be devoting all of my time and effort to covering bad movies these days, but that doesn’t mean I stopped loving them. So once a month, I’ll spread a little bit of that love…

As of this posting, it’s the day before the Fourth of July. And while it appears that our country has turned into one giant dumpster fire, I still love it and wanted to pick out an appropriately all-American movie for this month. Happy Birthday, ‘Merica! Yee-haw! Bang-bang! Shoot-shoot! Kick my heels!

For that, we need to go back to the…

Ah, the ‘70s… A simpler time, filled with wah-wah pedals and jumpsuits. How simple? Imagine this: Not only did people not have The Internet, but watching a guy jump over things on his motorcycle was considered prime entertainment.

The king of jumping over things while riding a motorcycle was Evel Knievel. If there was a public event, there was good chance that Knievel would be there, zipping around on his motorbike and looking for something to jump over. Sporting an impressive array of patriotic-themed jumpsuits, Knievel’s talent for jumping over things made him a household name. He even had his face on lunchbox – the very pinnacle of fame in the 1970s.

So I guess the cash-grab that is 1977’s Viva Knievel! was inevitable. And like all blatant cash grabs, Viva Knievel! isn’t particularly well thought-out.

Case in point: The film opens with Evel Knievel (playing himself) breaking into an orphanage in the middle of the night to deliver various Evel Knievel toys. He’s just like Santa, but with more hair and pinky rings! It’s the kind of unintentionally creepy sequence that a competent publicist would have put the kibosh on in a heartbeat, but apparently publicists didn’t exist in the ‘70s. 

Oh, I know Knievel just wanted to be portrayed as Great With Kids, but the film is filled with enough accidental inappropriateness (“C’mon [10-year-old boy I’ve just met], let me show you my van.”) to make a drinking game.

After that bit of creepiness, we get to meet some of Knievel’s entourage as he prepares for a show in Long Beach, California. We meet Ben (legendary comic Red Buttons), his obviously shady promoter, and Will (legendary hoofer Gene Kelly), Knievel’s mentor/chief mechanic/resident hot-head. Oh, and Will is a self-loathing alcoholic, giving Gene Kelly an opportunity for some Big Acting.

Thrown into the mix is a photographer played by Lauren Hutton. We can tell she’s a Big Deal Photographer by the way she arrives at the fairground by helicopter, but all the movie seems to care about is that she’s “one of those” – meaning a feminist. Also, she’s on hand in anticipation of Knievel perishing in a fiery crash. So yeah, she’s the love interest.

Here’s what their courtship looks like: Knievel tries to impress Ms. Hutton by offering her a ride. No, not like that, sicko. Hutton says no, Knievel calls her chicken, and Hutton proves to be at least 75% Marty McFly by immediately jumping onto the back of his motorcycle. He zips around like a madman, popping wheelies and whatnot, and then takes the bike up and down the bleacher steps. My teeth were rattling just watching it. At the end of the ride, Ms. Hutton is not at all impressed, probably on account of her internal organs being completely re-arranged. 

It’s probably worth mentioning here that, while Knievel pulled off some very impressive stunts during his day, acting was clearly not his forte. For a guy with such a gift for self-promotion, Knievel has the camera presence of limp spaghetti.

At least we get to see Knievel do a couple jumps, including a 150-foot jump over cages of hungry lions and tigers (spoiler: he makes it). We get the play-by-play of every heart-pounding minute by footballer-turned-sportscaster Frank Gifford with all the enthusiasm of a man with a gun to his head. 

Still, you’ll be happy to know that Viva Knievel! isn’t all motorcycle stunts and accidental pederasty and listless attempts to impress Lauren Hutton – there’s a plot! Leslie Nielsen is a promoter/drug lord (stop snickering, the guy wasn’t always Frank Drebin) with an insidious and overly elaborate plot to use Knievel to smuggle a ton of cocaine across the border. 

But that’s all pretty straightforward compared to the subplot involving the 10-year-old son Will never met showing up to hang out with dad for the summer. This gives Gene Kelly even more reasons for Big Acting, and an opportunity to be the crappiest father possible. 

Above: Gene Kelly (right), not dancing.

And so: Melodrama! Scheming! Crashes! Dabney Coleman as the head of a sanitarium! And before you can say, “Far out, man,” Knievel is speeding around on an eagle bike in an assortment of jumpsuits, saving the day. And by “saving the day,” I mean tearing through small peasant villages, defying physics and casually murdering people. You know, saving the day!

The best part – by far – is the moment where a sportscar goes off a cliff that appears out of nowhere. We get a shot of the passengers of the car, and it’s obvious that the cameraperson is literally rotating the camera around to make it look like they’re tumbling. Awesome.

A close second comes a minute or two later, when Knievel and Lauren Hutton are reunited. They watch Will and his son embrace, and Knievel says, “Hey, they finally found each other.” “Like we did,” Hutton adds. Cue the most tepid kiss I’ve ever seen on film.

Viva Knievel! is a big cheesy mess. It feels like a TV movie and the script approaches The Room levels of bad. Gene Kelly is waaaay over the top, though I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he was trying to over-compensate for the cinematic wet blanket that was Mr. Knievel. So yeah, I got a big kick out of it. With a theme song like this, how could I not?

Congratulations, Viva Knievel!: You are the Bad Movie of the Month.


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