There are those great sports films that transcend the narrow fandom of the sport they depict, and become lauded as universally accessible entertainment. Of course the go-to example of this is the Rocky franchise, which is still going strong with the recent release of the excellent Creed. There are millions of Rocky fans who don't care one iota about the real life sport of boxing, I'm amongst them, but the characters and the stories are so relatable, that we keep coming back to Balboa's world. It doesn't stop at just Rocky either. Since our subject is winter sports, I can easily come up with a film that accomplishes this universal appeal to people who otherwise have no interest in winter sports: Cool Runnings.
Downhill Racer is not one of those films. With its dry and passionless approach to downhill skiing, it's strictly for fans of the sport, and I doubt anyone else will find much to enjoy in it. The story about an ambitious yet cocky and even sometimes insufferably self-centered skier (Robert Redford) clashing with his peers and superiors, which includes his pragmatic coach (Gene Hackman), suffers from a lack of an engaging story or interesting characters. The film's docudrama approach, captured with a healthy amount of realism by DP Brian Probyn, was a risky decision in Hollywood at the time. The raw documentary approach makes the race scenes feel real, as if we're watching TV footage from actual races from the era.
For cinematographers who are interested in exploring the inception of this style in American cinema, Downhill Racer might offer a lot for them to study. But if you're looking for the complete package, an entertaining and insightful story about the sport for those who know almost nothing about it, it's a slow-paced and muddled bit of disappointment. Redford, in one of his first leading roles, tries to infuse the film with at least a little bit of passion, but his flatly written character makes it nearly impossible for the audience to care about him.
Apart from the expertly shot and edited racing scenes, we're stuck with a sleep-inducing romance sub-plot between two extremely uninteresting attractive blondes (Redford and Camilla Sparv) who look like they sprung out of a 1969 skiing edition of one of those magazines about lavish lifestyles. The conflict between Redford and Hackman's characters is the usual spat between the cocky athlete and the strict coach, which is a cliché even for 1969 standards.
I'm not a big fan of Downhill Racer, but for those who love the film, Criterion delivers a stunning 1080p transfer that perfectly captures the grainy and realistic look of the film. The breathtaking long shots of the slopes drenches in snow deserve to be seen on Blu-ray. The extras aren't as packed as a lot of other Criterion releases, but we still get a nice interview with Redford, as well as a talk with editor Richard Harris. The interviews were conducted in 2009, when Downhill Racer was released on DVD by Criterion.
Downhill Racer is now available on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion.