The 50 greatest sports movies: part six
We have a winner! In pole position, it's Robert Redford's icy, Aryan turn as a heartless ski champ in Michael Ritchie's monumental anti-sporting epic 'Downhill Racer'
1. Downhill Racer (1969)Dir: Michael RitchieDo you go as fast as you can all the time?It’s fair to say that Michael Ritchie's emotionally and narratively spare Olympic skiing drama ‘Downhill Racer’ has little in common with the majority of sports movies that make up this list. Robert Redford plays David Chappellet, a haughty young hotshot from Idaho Springs, Colorado (read: Anytown, USA) drafted into the US Olympic ski squad as they tour Europe in preparation for the 1968 Winter Olympics. Immediately at odds with his straight-arrow coach (Gene Hackman) and on frosty terms with his teammates, Chappellet nevertheless starts to win races and soon becomes a ski sensation.So far, so familiar, but this is no fuzzy, heartwarming sports parable about teamwork, fair play and love of the game, but a sour, impersonal, emotionally aloof study of a protagonist who exhibits all the warmth and empathy of black ice. Ritchie’s glassy study of the price of success and the ends of empty ambition may loosely conform to the tried-and-tested template of the underdog story in which a plucky outsider scraps his way to gold medal glory, but in this instance, the underdog is an unconscionable shit whose eventual triumph is entirely meaningless to him and mildly galling for the audience. Its message – that there is no justice in sport – is wholly un-Olympian. In this game there are no should’ves or could’ves: success requires nothing less than a vacuum of self-absorption and a lunatic will to win. We may want to see nice guys come first, but it’s usually the likes of Chappellet who take the gold. Let them, Ritchie seems to say. Leave them to their spoils.Redford cashes in on his corn-fed jock looks to play Chappellet – described by scriptwriter James Salter as ‘golden, unimpressable’ and who carries immaturity even in his name – as a crass, swinish child who has never needed to work to succeed on the slopes and feels no reason why he should expend any more effort in his dealings with others. Despite this, he is constantly in need of attention, be it from women, adoring fans, mirrors, shop-fronts or camera lenses. It's fitting, then, that Redford’s preternaturally fine, all-American features mean that it’s hard to take your eyes off him, even while his performance is ruthlessly enigmatic and distancing. Director Ritchie later became known for spunky, offbeat sports movie like ‘The Bad News Bears’ (1976), ‘Semi-Tough’ (1977) and ‘Wildcats’ (1986), but there’s barely a flicker of his trademark amiability in ‘Downhill Racer’. Humour would crack the ice, and Ritchie doesn’t want to give us any purchase as we hurtle toward a finale that allows Chappellet only a hollow, fleeting moment of triumph. It’s a grueling, rigorous film that refuses us any relief or relaxation. As the film contends, there is no room for sentiment, cordiality, glory or joking around in competitive sport, then why should we insist on them in our sports movies? Refusing to pander to any such expectations, ‘Downhill Racer’ is instead a pure, diamond-eyed meditation on the meaning of sport and the hefty price tag attached to gold. But it’s also the most riveting, revealing and thrillingly shot sports movie of them all. The ski scenes themselves are positively gut-clenching, with immediate, never-bettered point-of-view shots of the athletes tearing down the mountains, some especially gnarly wipe-outs and an ever-changing palette of spectacular Alpine vistas. If you’re looking for easy-going larks and bottom-of-the-ninth heroics, then maybe ‘Downhill Racer’ isn’t for you. But if you want to be challenged and electrified, then buckle up – it’s going to be a bumpy ride. ALD
Watch the trailer to 'Downhill Racer' Read the original Time Out review
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