ESPN’s latest paper-thin biopic follows where productions about Pete Rose and Bobby Knight have gone before — which is to say, once over (very) lightly. The most distinctive aspect of this look at Dale Earnhardt, in fact, is that it may be the first movie produced almost entirely without “g’s,” as the NASCAR legend goes about his business of racin’ and huntin’ before prematurely dyin’.
Earnhardt (Barry Pepper, who also played baseball’s Roger Maris in HBO’s “61*”) develops a love for racin’ at an early age thanks to the influence of his surly, thick-skinned dad (J.K. Simmons, who dies way too soon for both Dale and the movie’s good).
“The winner ain’t the guy with the fastest car, son. He’s the one that refuses to lose,” dad tells Dale, advice he later passes along to his son, Dale Jr., played by real-life NASCAR driver Chad McCumbee.
Growin’ up in North Carolina, Dale is so driven to race — as opposed to workin’ at the local mill — that his wives keep walkin’ out on him, until he meets the lovely Teresa (Elizabeth Mitchell), who stays faithful till the end.
Director Russell Mulcahy captures the grungy look of Dale’s early years with location shootin’ in the driver’s home state, but the claustrophobic race sequences and herky-jerky editin’– stylish though they may be — don’t pack much of a wallop for anyone (includin’ yours truly) who doesn’t possess a heavy-duty passion for NASCAR.
In a more general sense, one limitation that has characterized the recent batch of ESPN sports biopics as well as TNT’s “Evel Knievel” is a tendency to touch upon episodes in the subject’s life and never dig deeper psychologically or emotionally than a “Daddy did this, so I gotta do that” level. On the plus side, there’s no shortage of athletic divas for the sports net to dramatize, such as that bittersweet romance “When Kobe Met Shaquille.”
Pepper is appropriately gruff under prosthetic makeup and an Earnhardt fright wig, but can’t inject much personality into his taciturn character, and other than Simmons, no one else is much more than window dressin’. As an aside, the movie is incongruously “presented by Kay Jewelers.” Feel free to insert your own joke here.
By the way, “3” stands for the number on Earnhardt’s car, but for non-NASCAR fans in need of another mnemonic device, just think, “Rate this movie on a scale from 1-10.”