Viva Knievel! (1977) Viva Knievel! (1977) -***

     Truly I donít know how I wound up adding 70ís fadsploitation movies to my repertoire of coverage. Maybe it was because of the strange way these films have of overlapping with counterculture exploitation, which was part of my vision for 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting from the get-go. Or perhaps itís because so many 70ís fadsploitation flicks are just too damn weird to resist. It might even have been sheer happenstance, insofar as the first one I wrote up, The Unholy Rollers, initially caught my eye for being a bit of a softcore sex movie on top of its main business of cashing in on roller derby. However I got here, though, 70ís fadsploitation was plainly in the running as a topic for me when the other B-Masters took up my suggestion to devote the second roundtable of our 20th-anniversary year to our most idiosyncratic idiosyncrasies. And since a sub-theme of these anniversary roundtables is for all of us to catch up with movies that we expected to have reviewed a long time ago, this seems like the perfect occasion for me to pick up one of the balls I dropped at B-Fest some years back by reviewing Viva Knievel!.

     After all, the nationwide mania over stunt cyclist Evel Knievel is surely among the most utterly inexplicable of the eraís passing crazes. For the benefit of my readers who werenít there to see it, Evel Knievel jumped motorcycles over things. Thatís it. Thatís all he did, except for a few occasions on which he jumped some other kind of motor vehicle over something instead. And yet somehow the guy became a national folk heroó especially after he damn near killed himself trying to jump the fountains in front of the Caesarís Palace casino in Las Vegas. A failure like that would have ended a lot of entertainersí careers, but it became part of Knievelís mystique that his most ambitious jumps often failed in spectacularly gruesome manner. What made it twice as weird was that no one seemed willing to admit how morbid it was for millions of people to idolize a disaster-prone daredevil for his propensity for disaster. And what made it three times as weird was that it kind of wasnít morbid at all, really. Because the salient fact about Evel Knievel was that no matter how many pieces he landed in, heíd get back on that fucking Harley as soon as he got out of the hospital, and go jump it over some other fool thing. Incredible as this may seem in these days of greenhouse-grown, terrarium-kept children, Knievelís sod-the-odds determination even made him a socially approved role model for kids, and nevermind that what he did with his determination was to woo death with all the misplaced ardor of Pepe Le Pew. Meanwhile, there was a pronounced if indistinct consensus that the daredevilís bike-jumping exploits had something to do with America, for reasons that went beyond the red-white-and-blue jumpsuits he wore for most of his career. Maybe with things going to shit for us over in Indochina, it seemed inherently patriotic for a man to get up and keep going despite repeatedly almost destroying himself doing something self-evidently stupid and pointless. In any case, it was practically inevitable that there would be Evel Knievel movies sooner or later, and given the period weíre talking about, it was also practically inevitable that at least some of them would be something much stranger than mere documentaries or biopics. In fact, Viva Knievel! is something almost without parallel in mainstream American cinema. Featuring as it does an entertainer playing himself in a fictional story that presents him in complete earnest as a kind of low-grade superhero, Viva Knievel! is about the closest thing Hollywood had ever made to a luchador movie.

     We begin with a scene designed to establish Knievel as a literally saintly figure. (And while Iím making comparisons to luchador movies, need I remind you what Mexicoís favorite wrestler called himself?) In the middle of the night, mere hours before his next televised jump, the daredevil sneaks into a Catholic orphanage to fulfill his promise of a personal appearance. He was supposed to drop in at a more socially acceptable hour, but mechanical problems in his convoy delayed him. Sister Charity (City Beneath the Seaís Sheila Allen), the nun standing the night watch, tries her damnedest to be scandalized, but is unable to keep up the pretense for long.

     As for that next jump, it would qualify for the Guinness Book of World Records on length alone (in fact, itís nine feet longer than Knievel ever successfully jumped in the real world), but this is Evel Knievel weíre talking about. You had to know heíd work in some other angle, too, just for the sake of showmanship. This time, the 150 feet between the takeoff and landing ramps will be occupied by cages containing scores of fully grown lions and tigers. If Evel fucks up this one the way he fucked up over the Snake River Canyon, there wonít be enough left of him to be worth burying. Mind you, the jump will be as dangerous for the audience as it will be for Knievel, because his promoter, Ben Andrews (Red Buttons), has not only sold out the stands, but has also sold seats on the stadium field itselfó well within range of flying debris or escaped cats should something go seriously wrong. Knievel is an honorable man, however, and he is enraged when he sees the rows of folding chairs on the grass. He orders Andrews to have the unsafe seats taken away, and to hand over all the money from the corresponding tickets so that Knievel can personally oversee the refunds to those who bought them.

     You wouldnít think Evel could have time for that, what with all the other irons heís got in the fire today. First, obviously, heís got a job of work to do on the bikes themselves, both the jump bike and the less precisely tuned model heíll use during his introductory laps around the arena. Sure, he has a mechanic for tható high-functioning alcoholic Will Atkins (Gene Kelly), formerly a record-setting stunt cyclist in his own rightó but he still needs to test all of Willís tweaks and adjustments to make certain that everything will work as close to perfectly as possible come showtime. Knievel has a reporter to contend with, too, in the form of slumming war correspondent Kate Morgan (Lauren Hutton, from Fear and Timestalkers). Her paper wouldnít normally waste precious column-inches on a traveling stuntman, but ever since that close call at the canyon, theyíve made a point of sending someone to each of Evelís jumps, just in case it winds up being his last (if you know what I mean, and Joe Bob Briggs thinks you do). Naturally thereís friction on the site between Knievel and the journalistic vulture circling over his head. Thereís also Evelís protťgť, an up-and-coming stunt cyclist called Jessie (Marjoe Gortner, of Hellhole and Mausoleum), who has been after him and after him of late to take a series of gigs in Mexico with a promoter about whom Knievel knows nothing whatsoever. And finally, Knievel has taken it upon himself to play peacemaker between Will and his twelve-ish son, Tommy (Eric Olson), who have been estranged for literally the boyís entire life on account of Willís inability to get over his wifeís death in the delivery room.

     With all that on his mind, maybe itís no wonder that Knievel doesnít quite make the jump. He clears the cats just fine, but loses control of the bike upon landing. Evel manages to limp off the field with the aid of Will and Jessie, but itís straight to the hospital for him after that. For reasons the movie never makes any serious attempt to explain, Knievelís latest injury spooks him so badly that he announces his retirement. I didnít buy it, either, but something similar really did happen after Knievel broke his pelvis (seemingly a minor injury by his usual insane standards) jumping buses at Wembley Stadium in London. Again as in the real world, however, Evel doesnít stay retired for long. Will talks him out of his hospital bed, at which point he decides to take Jessieís mystery promoter up on his staggeringly generous offer of up to six Mexican jumps at $100,000 each. Maybe Knievel saw his bill from the hospital, you think?

     Letís meet this promoter now, shall we? His name is Stanley Millard, and heís played by Leslie Nielsen, of Dark Intruder and Repossessed. Remember that this is before Airplane!, so itís Bad News when Nielsenís face shows up on a character who has hitherto lurked in the shadows. That expectation is further reinforced when we see that Millard has not only a nervous yes-man (Ernie Orsatti, from The Acid Eaters and The Car), but also an actual goon, by the name of Barton. Worse yet, Barton is played by Cameron Mitchell (Haunts, Blood and Black Lace), who is at least as ill an omen as Neilsen. But although no one will be surprised to learn that this bunch is up to no good, the precise form of no good which theyíre up to is much harder to see coming. Millard intends to engineer Knievelís death, not because he has anything against the daredevil, or even because he wants to clear the way for Jessie (whom he has under contract) to supplant Evel as the worldís greatest bike-jumper, but rather because no customs agent in America would ever think to search the funeral caravan of Evel Knievel for contraband. You see, motorsports promotion is merely the front through which Millard launders his real money. The bulk of his income comes from high-volume drug smuggling. With Jessieís help, Millardís minions will build an exact duplicate of Knievelís garage trailer, with which they will replace the original under cover of the confusion surrounding the stuntmanís death in action. And concealed within the walls of the copycat trailer will be enough cocaine to keep Millard rolling in dough for years to come. But even as Jessie is the key to Millardís plan, heís also its weak point. Jessieís ambition, his youthful impatience and indiscretion, the erratic behavior to which heís prone when heís high on Millardís drugs, his residual affection for Eveló any one of those things could surge forward at any time to create an opening through which Knievel might escape.

     The most surprising thing about Viva Knievel! is that Evel turns out to be pretty decent at playing himself. I realize that sounds like damningly faint praise, but if you think about what non-actor celebrities in his position usually managed in the 70ís, it isnít so bad at all. Knievelís line delivery is natural, his body language is unforced, and his emoting is within acceptable parameters. The latter is more than I can say for some of the actual actors in this cast. Then again, maybe we shouldnít be taken so far aback by Knievelís competence. After all, the ďrealĒ Evel Knievel was only slightly less fictional than this movieís version, and Bobby Knievel had been playing him successfully in sporting arenas and television appearances for more than a decade by the time Viva Knievel! was made.

     No, itís the professional movie folks who make the film look like itís falling down drunk. I use that analogy advisedly, too, because Viva Knievel!ís most luridly memorable silliness all revolves somehow or other around the character of Will Atkins. Watch Gene Kelly for some indication of the things Knievel isnít doing. Itís the kind of performance that feels rooted in embarrassment at the need to accept such a turkey of a part in the first place, but then becomes even more embarrassing in its own right as the actor flounders and flails. Unhinged as Kelly is while portraying Willís boozing, he goes even further over the top when the mechanic is supposed to be more or less sober. (And as for the scene in which Jessie drugs Will in order to take reference photos for the phony garage trailer, I had no idea it was even possible to overact while lying motionless on the floor!) Mind you, the writing for Will is even more ridiculous, so Iím not sure how far I can blame Kelly. Remember that Willís personal subplot concerns the long-overdue reconciliation between him and his son. Usually when we see that trope put into play, itís the kid who has the chip on his or her shoulderó and not without justification. I mean, the burden of making amends falls mainly on the party in the wrong, right? That isnít how it works here, though. In Viva Knievel!, Tommy is achingly earnest in his desire to patch things up with his father, and Will truculently rebuffs his advances at every turn. It would be heartbreaking if either actor had brought an ounce of nuance, subtlety, or sensitivity to the relationship. The way Kelly and Eric Olsen play it, itís just blackly funny.

     An equal and opposite discordance is on display among the villains. Leslie Nielsen and Cameron Mitchell approach their parts with the utmost solemnity, but what theyíre supposed to be doing is patently absurd. Surely Millardís plan subjects his dope shipment to more scrutiny, not less, even if heís right about getting the trailer through customs? The media attention alone ought to make it extremely difficult to switch trailers without getting caught, and harder still to retrieve the drugs once theyíre over the border. Furthermore, it seems to me that the late Evel Knievelís garage trailer is the kind of thing that would attract swarms of would-be buyers. An auction seems almost inevitable, together with a 24-hour guard set over the merchandise. Does Millard envision entering such an auction to buy his own drugs back before he can sell them? Yet despite all that, Nielsen and Mitchell treat their roles as if they were playing a perfectly ordinary mob boss and stickup man respectively. The result is very similar to the deadpan lunacy of Airplane! and its successors, so much so that I now find myself wondering if maybe Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers saw Viva Knievel!, too, along with all those mid-century cop shows and airline disaster movies.

     One last thing I want to mention about Viva Knievel! is the nagging feeling it gave me that I was watching a TV movie that had been promoted at the last minute to theatrical release. That isnít the case, but there is a good reason why it should seem so. Although his name appears nowhere in the credits, the Łberboss on this project was none other than Irwin Allen. After about a decade of writing, directing, and producing feature films, Allen spent most of the 60ís as a television producer, and when he got back into the movie business proper with The Poseidon Adventure in 1972, it was as if the norms of TV production had rubbed off on him permanently. Even Allenís biggest-budget movies from the 70ís (and some of those were big indeed) merely felt like more expensive versions of the Movies of the Week that he continued cranking out for the networks throughout the decade. Itís only to be expected, then, that Viva Knievel!, which really was made on a similar scale to the likes of Fire, Flood, and The Amazing Captain Nemo, should come out with a similar vibe. Itís just one more aspect of this movieís endearing strangeness.



Can you believe the B-Masters Cabal turns 20 this year? I sure don't think any of us can! Given the sheer unlikelihood of this event, we've decided to commemorate it with an entire year's worth of review roundtablesó four in all. These are going to be a little different from our usual roundtables, however, because the thing we'll be celebrating is us. That is, we'll each be concentrating on the kind of coverage that's kept all of you coming back to our respective sites for all this timeó and while we're at it, we'll be making a point of reviewing some films that we each would have thought we'd have gotten to a long time ago, had you asked us when we first started. This review belongs to the second roundtable, in which we each focus on those odd, dusty corners of the cinematic universe that have become our particular fixations. For me, that means the prehistory of the slasher film, 70's fadsploitation, the works of local antihero John Waters, and movies touching on musically-oriented countercultures, punk rock especially. Click the banner below to peruse the Cabal's combined offerings:




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