Another one of those biopics that provides a collection of scenes as opposed to a cohesive portrait, “Evel Knievel” affords George Eads a chance to display his stellar abs, but that’s about it. For sheer comic relief, it would be hard to top the two 1970s biographies starring George Hamilton and then Knievel himself, but this look at the hardscrabble Montana kid who climbed aboard a motorcycle and became “the most recognized man in America” never takes off. Although easily promotable, the movie barely justifies preempting TNT’s ubiquitous “Law & Order” reruns.
Opening with Knievel’s ill-fated attempt to leap the fountains at Caesars Palace, the narrative quickly flashes back to his rambunctious youth, spending a good deal of time on his courtship of eventual wife Linda (Jaime Pressly).
Parlaying his motorcycle-riding skills into a daredevil act, the story pretty quickly finds Knievel rich and famous, becoming a hard-livin’, hard-drinkin’, philandering type who charmingly evicts a sexual conquest from his trailer with the “Jerry Springer”-worthy line, “You’ll have something to tell your grandkids.”
If veteran director John Badham’s name raises expectations, alas, there’s not much Friday-night fever to be found here. Working from a book about Knievel, Badham and writer Jason Horwitch essentially deliver an episodic guide to his life, from the perilous crash in Vegas to the embarrassing Snake River canyon stunt in an ersatz rocket.
“Loved by millions, understood by few,” say the liner notes on TNT’s press materials, and a few scattered moments of insight emerge, such as Knievel describing his symbiotic relationship with the crowds that come out half-hoping to see his brains splattered across the pavement. “If it wasn’t for me, they wouldn’t have anything to do, and if it wasn’t for them, I’d be in jail or dead,” he observes.
Yet despite a “Taxi Driver”-lite scene where Knievel talks to himself in the mirror, the movie never penetrates the polyester suits or spans the chasm to reveal what makes him tick. Yes, Knievel becomes rich, buys a mansion resembling something in a reality dating show and relishes staring death in the face, but beyond that all we learn is that he’s adept at peeing outdoors, which he’s shown doing twice.
Nor do any of the other characters resonate, with WB Net fave Pressly doing little more than look smashing and Beau Bridges struggling to fill out a thinly drawn role as her gruff dad.
Eads possesses a certain easygoing charm, good looks and even his own daredevil skills, considering the actor and his reps dared piss off CBS honcho Leslie Moonves in a recent contract dispute over “CSI.” With apologies to the women-in-the-penitentiary Internet contingent that lobbied for Eads’ reinstatement, for a series’ third banana that takes some guts.
From a historical perspective, the fascination with Knievel’s death-defying feats does offer a snapshot of that period, though in terms of public appetites, little has changed. Demonstrating as much, TNT will cash in by televising Robbie Knievel’s latest leap in conjunction with his dad’s biography — a bit of scheduling that actually exhibits more creativity than the movie itself.