Review by Robert T. Trate
Starring: Robert Redford and Gene Hackman
Directed by: Michael Rithci
Running time: 102 minutes
Year of release: 1969
I feel as if Criterion Collection films represent the fine wine selection of cinema. These films are chosen for their place or significance in film history. With that being said, I’m not quite sure as to why Michael Bay’s Armageddon (Spine #40) or The Rock (Spine #108) have Criterion releases, but the likes of The Hidden Fortress (#116) and The Seventh Seal (Spine #11) are better examples of what Criterion stands for. One of their most recent re-releases is Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer (#494). Criterion has released it for the first time on Blu-ray and the chance to see it in Criterion’s pristine format was too good to miss.
Robert Redford stars as Chappllett, a hot shot skier who joins the U.S. Olympic ski team. In many ways, this character is a great predecessor for Redford’s character of Roy Hobbs in The Natural. He’s from the small town, wants to conquer his sport, and has the ability to do so. Gene Hackman plays the coach of the team, Claire. This is not a predecessor for Hackman’s role in Hoosiers, Normal Dale, though. In fact, outside of some spectacular photography, Downhill Racer left me cold.
Having just shown my hand, let us discuss what is wrong with Downhill Racer. In part, it may lay on my shoulders having seen and loved both actors in the films/ roles that I mentioned above. Seeing a film that pre-dates those other films, it is difficult to disassociate myself with those characters. Yet, in my defense, I do not see Hackman perpetually as the greatest criminal mind of our time, Lex Luthor. So, the fault probably lies in the film. Redford’s character, Chappllett, isn’t likable. He is a self surviving egotist that wants fame and nothing else. A different type of lead character and if there was someone worse than him or a lesson for Chappllett to learn that entitles him to be the best, then I would have liked the film. Instead, I found myself rooting for a character that was on screen for all of 3 minutes that competes after Chappllett in the final race. My thought was that Chappllett is a real shit and if this racer beats him, maybe Chappllett might learn something. Hackman’s coach, Claire, is almost a throw away character. There are numerous occurrences in which he may pass on some knowledge or understanding about what it means to be a part of a team or what it is to represent your country. When this single moment does happen, it is too little too late. Even the love story is shallow. Again, I know that it is supposed to be different, but I should identify or care for someone in the film. I never did, well, not for anyone who stuck around long enough to matter.
Why did Criterion pick this film or re-release this film on Blu-ray, then? The answer for that this is Michael Ritchie’s directorial debut and the photography. Ritchie, better known for the Fletch films and The Bad News Bears, matured as a director from this film on. His uneven effort with Eddie Murphy in The Golden Child is a step up, character-wise, from Downhill Racer. His photography here in Downhill Racer is unmatched. An incredible collection of cameramen willing to risk it all propels the audience into the world of competitive skiing. Today, much of this would be shot with GoPros and it would look like it, too. Downhill Racer has real cameras on skis moving at incredible speeds. If you are a skier, you have probably seen this film. I do suggest that you see it again with its restored high-definition digital transfer.
Downhill Racer is a spectacular example of photography in an era where cameramen risked it all for footage no one had seen before. Today, this film would be done with digital effects, GoPro footage, and washed in 3D. Watch Downhill Racer for the skiing footage. Watch Redford and Hackman in other films; they were in better stories before and after this.
• Restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
• Interviews from 2009 with actor Robert Redford, screenwriter James Salter, editor Richard Harris, production manager Walter Coblenz, and former downhill skier Joe Jay Jalbert, who served as a technical adviser, ski double, and cameraman
• Audio excerpts from a 1977 American Film Institute seminar with director Michael Ritchie
• How Fast?, a rare twelve-minute promotional feature from 1969
• PLUS: An essay by critic Todd McCarthy