Director: Gordon Douglas
USA - 1977
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.
Evel Knievel plays
well, Evel Knievel: a motorcycle stuntman with a penchant for
honesty, anecdotal morality lessons, lion jumping, surly women, flashy jumpsuits and coiffure anomalies. When hes 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: Evels 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 - Wills
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 Knievels 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 Evels charms, thus
becoming the requisite love interest.
Marjoe Gortner plays Jessie: Knievels young protégé and friend, and the
prospective leader of the next generation in motorcycle entertainment. Living under
Evels remarkable shadow, however, has disenchanted Jessie, thus making him
susceptible to corruption (foreshadowing alert).
Leslie Nielsen (!) plays Stanley Millard: South American druglord, and Jessies corrupter. Contrives a diabolical scheme to
lure Knievel to South America for a stunt, sabotage Evels 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 ones various bodily orifices? Millards 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 Im just not
qualified to offer my humble opinion.
Eric Olson plays Tommy Atkins: Wills 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? Ill give you a
hint: He drives a motorcycle, and it isnt Jessie.
Also be on the lookout for small supporting roles by Dabney Coleman, Red Buttons and
Frank "My Wife Can Too Sing!" Gifford.
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 to 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
youve 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 youngsters countenance, and he immediately shucks the
crutches aside and walks on his own two feet miraculously healed! Triumphantly, the
boy states, "Youre the reason Im walking, Evel!" And then rushes
into the daredevils arms. I mean, Evel Knievel is just like Benny Hinn
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 Tommys infinite
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 theyve 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
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 Xanadu? 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 thing 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 didnt know any kung-fu (at least not to my knowledge). But thats 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 theyre 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 Knievels (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 screen 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 (Im sorry, but look at
the guys 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 wasnt 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 Im concerned, he can keep it.
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-- Copyright © 2000 by J. Bannerman