Viva Knievel!

Director: Gordon Douglas

USA - 1977

    Hoff! Hoff! Hoff! 


For the benefit of those with a short attention span...
When you think of Evel Knievel, a variety of phrases probably pop into your head, none of them being: Family counselor, feminist, or friend to nuns everywhere.

The Guilty Party

Evel Knievel plays…well, Evel Knievel: a motorcycle stuntman with a penchant for honesty, anecdotal morality lessons, lion jumping, surly women, flashy "Some say love, it is a river..."jumpsuits and coiffure anomalies. When he’s not on his motorcycle - jumping over any number of dangerous obstacles - he can be found smooth talkin’ the ladies, foolin’ around with nuns (not that way), and thwarting South American druglords.

Gene Kelly (!) plays Will Atkins: Evel’s mechanic, mentor, and a legendary stuntman in his own right. Unfortunately, Will now scrapes through life in an alcoholic haze; roughing up crooked event promoters, spewing hate and filth to all those who love him, and coming up with new ways to scowl. When his estranged son unexpectedly shows up – with puppy-dog eyes and a burning desire to make up for lost time - Will’s life of debauchery is put to the test.

Lauren Hutton plays Kate Morgan: a reporter with a nose for sensationalism; out to cover any possible mishap that might occur during one of Knievel’s jumps. At first, she seems a bit edgy – engaging in a battle of wits with the daredevil on almost a daily basis – but inevitably, she eventually succumbs to Evel’s charms, thus becoming the requisite love interest.

Marjoe Gortner plays Jessie: Knievel’s young protégé and friend, and the prospective leader of the next generation in motorcycle entertainment. Living under Evel’s remarkable shadow, however, has disenchanted Jessie, thus making him susceptible to corruption (foreshadowing alert).

Leslie Nielsen (!) plays Stanley Millard: South American druglord, and JessiTommy's agent must've sent thise’s corrupter. Contrives a diabolical scheme to lure Knievel to South America for a stunt, sabotage Evel’s bike in an attempt to kill him, then cleverly conceal a cargo of narcotics in his grand funeral procession back into the U.S. To me, this begs the question: Whatever happened to the good ole days of smuggling drugs in one’s various bodily orifices? Millard’s plan strikes me as pretty damn convoluted; I say stick to the old school – a ziploc bag, some lubricant, and a little privacy. But never having sold drugs myself, I guess I’m just not qualified to offer my humble opinion.

Eric Olson plays Tommy Atkins: Will’s son, who has spent a good portion of his life at boarding school, but is brought out under mysterious circumstances during his summer vacation to join his father on the Knievel Tour. Now, who could have possibly devised this brilliant scheme to reunite Will with his long-lost son? I’ll give you a hint: He drives a motorcycle, and it isn’t Jessie.

Also be on the lookout for small supporting roles by Dabney Coleman, Red Buttons and Frank "My Wife Can Too Sing!" Gifford.

My "thoughts" on the film. Thinking! Ha!

Going into Viva Knievel!, I was under the misconception that Evel was basically a one-trick pony. Granted, he was somewhat of a charismatic showman – willing Wussto put his own body on the line for the mere thrill of the crowd (oh yeah, and money) – but that was about it. After actually seeing this, however, my eyes have been opened to the many subtle, yet distinct, levels that comprise this complex entertainer. Evel Knievel is much more than a mere motorcycle jockey:

1.  Role model and spiritual healer. The opening scene has Evel sneaking into an orphanage late at night - the orphans fast asleep, snug in their beds, with visions of sugar plums and flaming motorcycle mutilation dancing in their respective heads. Anyway, Evel awakens the young lads, much to their surprise and delight, and presents the orphans with action figures of – you guessed it – himself! And just when you think you’ve seen it all – one of the boys waddles out from between the beds, pushing himself along the floor on two crutches. Upon seeing his idol (that would be Evel), a wave on inspiration crosses the youngster’s countenance, and he immediately shucks the crutches aside and walks on his own two feet – miraculously healed! Triumphantly, the boy states, "You’re the reason I’m walking, Evel!" And then rushes into the daredevil’s arms. I mean, Evel Knievel is just like Benny Hinn – but different.

2.  Family counselor. When Will and his estranged son are reunited, Will is, at first, quite reluctant to embrace the fruit of his loins. But due to Tommy’s infiniteOoh! love for his father, along with some lessons on family values from Evel himself, the father and son eventually come to terms with one another, and begin to fill the painful void that has accumulated over the many long years they’ve been separated. You can get awed by all the motorcycle tricks and lion jumping that you want. In the end, Evel is all about family.

3.  Feminist. During a bout of mental sparring with her future squeeze, Kate informs Evel that she is, in fact, a "Ms.," as opposed to a "Miss." This prompts Evel to reply, "So are you a woman, or a Ms.?" Now, if that isn’t classy...

But seriously, all this is in jest, of course. Evel is, as I assumed, a one-trick pony. And though his performance was forgettable, I guess I can't blame the guy. He's a stuntman, not an actor.

But what about poor old Gene Kelly? Had he gone senile by the time he received the scripts for both this and XanAah!adu? Had Hollywood forsaken him? Was Burger King not hiring? Not only was he stuck in this boring film, but he was also stuck playing one of the most annoying characters featured. A grumpy old miser with a major chip on his shoulder; but deep, deep inside, he has a heart of gold. Hmmm, maybe he won't reunite with his estranged son at the end. Perhaps he'll go to the grave a friendless, homeless alcoholic. Maybe he'll sell Tommy to some gypsies in exchange for a couple bottles of Boone Farms. Or maybe – just maybe - this amazing Knievel adventure will draw the father and son closer together. Maybe they'll learn that their life together is precious. Perhaps the old miser will do a complete 360 degree personality turn towards the end. And maybe I will be sickened by not only the saccharine-saturated reunion, but the utter predictability of the whole scenario.

As far as thespians go, the most impressive of the lot was Leslie Nielsen. He was nothing special, but decent enough - at least compared to his Knievel castmates. Perhaps I was just surprised that he could do something besides Frank Drebbin. Again, his performance is nothing spectacular, but would fit in quite nicely as the villain du jour on either The A Team or Simon and Simon. Take from that what you wish.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this film, as the title implies, is about Evel Knievel. Evel Knievel, as you may have already surmised, is a professional stuntman; his specialty being motorcycle stunts - motorcycle jumping, to be exact. Jumping cars. Jumping buses. Jumping large crevices. Jumping large crevices filled with flaming buses. You get the general idea. Now, when renting a film about Evel Knievel, one would expect to see a movie chock-full of motorcycle recklessness. You can't imagine how disappointed I was to learn that this was just not the case. Evel has a total of three jumps - and he only crashes once! If there is one thingOoh! Eee! Ooh! Ah! Ah! Knievel was known for (besides his wacky motorcycle hijinks) it's his neverending quest to completely mutilate his body. The man used to crash on almost a daily basis. Breaking bones seemed almost routine. Evel Knievel was just like Jackie Chan - except American, with a gaudy haircut, and didn’t know any kung-fu (at least not to my knowledge). But that’s beside the point. Basically, instead of a film full of death-defying spectacle and cringe-inducing motorcycle carnage, we get an hour and a half of meandering story, unlikable characters, and morality lessons. Don't do drugs. Always wear a helmet. Talk to women like they’re garbage and they'll be like putty in your hands. Please.

My impression is that Viva Knievel! was made for the sole purpose of capitalizing on Knievel’s (then) popularity. The purpose was to make Evel appear larger than life, and portray him as some kind of a superhero. Unfortunately, they failed on both accounts. As mentioned before, Knievel came off as a bland, middle-aged male chauvinist. His lackluster stunts were few and far between, his I heard that the color of Tang was in that yearscreen presence almost non-existent, and his acting was for the birds. My suggestion would have been to portray Evel as the strong silent type (with an emphasis on the "silent" part). Have more stunts, less silly sub-plots (i.e., the Gene Kelly/estranged son fiasco), no love interest (I’m sorry, but look at the guy’s hair, for cryin’ out loud!), and more flashy jumpsuits.

Which leads me to my final thought, where I give credit where credit is due, and end on an uncharacteristic positive note. Some of the costumes Knievel sported were priceless. Especially when accentuated by a grotesquely huge belt buckle. There. Now wasn’t that nice? Now granted, fashion-wise, he may not give Elvis a run for his money, but Knievel definitely had a style all his own; but as far as I’m concerned, he can keep it.

Wink! Wink! Nudge! Nudge! Say no more!

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-- Copyright © 2000 by J. Bannerman


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