by West Coast CraigÂ
KODAK THEATER, HOLLYWOOD — Standing out here on the red carpet, my gold lame Versace suit getting jostled by all these paparazzi, black tuxes, and beautiful people…I’m kept back by velvet ropes and remembering, apropos of nothing, a time when people used to be able to brush up against their heroes in every day life. Of course I’m not talking about movie stars–here in LA you can’t walk down the street without brushing up against them, and they’re shorter than you think–but sports figures. Used to be a time when fans actually stood out in the outfield, or could hop the fence and run alongside congratulating Hank Aaron or Chris Chambliss, or burn disco records and cause a riot, but nowadays there’s velvet ropes everywhere. I used to think that seeing a professional golf tournament was probably the closest you could get to bona fide stars of the game…until I went to a bike race.
The Amgen Tour of California just wrapped up with Levi Leipheimer winning his third in a row…which is saying something because this year the competition was the same as it will be in France, with all the world’s biggest guns and even the much heralded return of Lance Armstrong. Saturday I took my staff of interns up into the mountains, where there was still snow, and had them set up my table of wine and cheese and fancy sandwiches and Chimay, and settled in to wait for the riders and enjoy the festival atmosphere. Music plays, kids write all over the road with chalk, people drink lots of wine, cars come by giving out sponsored cowbells, people blade up and down the hills, some Segway, and most ride their own bikes. The crazies are out, like Big Hair Guy, with a big afro barely contained by a big headband, big sunglasses, and a big paunch tightly stuffed in a jumpsuit complete with cape. There’s a guy with giant eight-point antlers somehow attached to a helmet, and he’s somehow keeping his balance. Then there are the regular idiots, the guys who just wear a speedo and running shoes. It was the most action Mill Creek Summit had seen in years. They soon block off the road from regular cars, and the official cars start coming through, faster and faster, Highway Patrol flashing their lights, Amgen official tour vans roaring through, team cars with tires and spare bikes on top, all cruising through a giant crowd of people. Before long the helicopter is heard, and then, way down below, you see the riders. We’re a mile above sea level, at the peak of a twenty-mile climb, and these guys are flying. Seeing a bike race live is about a lot of things, such as the drinking and snacking, and the fact that it’s free to see–you just set up alongside the route–and a lot of it is simply the waiting…and then the riders appear, approach, and then whip by you, their colored jerseys blurring together in a streak, so close that you can touch (this is actual video from my well paid crew), so close you can get smeared by them, or one of the speeding team cars, if you lean out just a little too much to take a picture. And then, running along with them is Big Hair Guy, and somebody dressed like the devil, and antler man, and all the idiots are soon running with them like they’re the bulls of Pamplona. And all the people are lined along the side of the road, ringing their bells and banging their thundersticks and shouting and cheering and cajoling the riders to keep pumping…but they need no encouragement from us, if they can even hear over the blood pumping behind their ears at that point…all of them staring ahead with laser like concentration, their mouths hung open and sucking air. And then, when the last one rides by–in this case, the disappointing Tyler Hamilton, who’d burned out and was pretty much just considering this a nice ride through the mountains at this point (he could hear you when you shouted at him to get moving, and he just sort of waves his hand, already resigned to the fact that this just wasn’t his year)–it’s over in less than a minute. They were soon racing down the other side of the mountain, their chests up on their handlebars coaxing just a little more speed (as if going over 60 mph down winding roads isn’t fast enough) on their way to Pasadena, and your drive down the same route will be considerably slower, so you’re left sipping your Chimay in the mountain air and planning next year.
In honor of the Academy Awards–and by the way, I applaud the tighter format this year, though Hugh Jackman’s song-and-dance-man routine is acceptable once, not twice–I was trying to think of good sports movies. Now, every “best sports movie” list basically looks the same, you got your Rockys (and some even include III and IV), you got your Raging Bulls, your Bull Durhams…even the ones for which my love is so personal it feels like a letdown to see them on everybody’s list, like The Bad News Bears, Caddyshack, and Slap Shot. So, I started looking up lists and lists, looking for the snubs that somehow didn’t make any of them. For instance, just about every baseball film ever made is on one or all of these, except Major League (okay, not a great film, but if you hang around ballplayers long enough it gets quoted perhaps the most). Major League doesn’t make my top five, but that’s the idea here behind these five.
5. BABE No, not the John Goodman Babe Ruth biopic, the movie about the pig who wins the big sheepdog contest. Okay, okay, unless you have kids you haven’t seen this movie, and even if you have you might not think of it as a sports movie…even though it is a classic underdog story with a strong, silent old trainer who believes in his athlete when everyone else thinks he’s nuts. It also ends with one of the great climactic triumphs in a beautifully pregnant pause between Farmer Hoggett’s slowly shutting the gate behind the sheep and the outpouring of applause by the won-over crowd…a pure sports-movie moment.
4. KING OF KONG A heated rivalry, a former champion trying desperately to cling to the one thing that gives his life meaning, the young (well, middle-aged) upstart challenging his record, training montages and a thrilling finish, it’s got all the ingredients including the best one of all, it’s true.
3. SHAOLIN SOCCER Soccer doesn’t have too many good movies about it (nice try, Victory, with your Pele bicycle kick and Max Von Sydow being won over) and I’m frankly surprised this one isn’t on more of these lists. Stephen Chow was coming into the peak of his powers as Asia’s biggest star when he made this completely crazy hybrid, taking every single kung fu cliche and mixing them with every single sports movie cliche, delivering a movie that at times is on a completely different page than you, but then delivers a dozen completely awesome moments like this.
2. LET IT RIDE There are even less movies about horse racing (Black Stallion is pretty good, Seabiscuit is probably the best), and almost none about the players…except this little gem by commercial director Joe Pytka (who had bigger fame with Space Jam, which I don’t think has made anybody’s list), about a shlubby Richard Dreyfuss who for one magical day can’t lose. Despite the screwball premise, there’s a surprising sincerity to it, as though the people who made it actually went to the track and played the ponies. There’s a great moment where Dreyfuss’s character asks every single person he sees who they like in the next race, they all give a different answer…and the one horse that nobody picks is the one he ends up choosing by elimination, and winning. Important handicapping lesson there, the people’s favorite should never be yours. Also, you can’t beat a movie that has Trevor Denman in it.
1. Â SPEED RACER Â This one’s a personal axe to grind, because it’s great and the fact that it didn’t do well makes no sense, unless certain critics are just too old to have their mind blown. Â Sure it’s a little too long, especially for a movie made mainly for kids, but what’s there is so brain-meltingly awesome it’s hard to believe. Â Corporate greed, cheating, fixing, exclusion from the hall of fame, these are issues of the righteous sports lover, washed over with electric candy colored explosions and race sequences that build and compound off each other, and involve dirty weapons like a beehive-apult. If you have a four to fourteen year old boy, let them watch and behold the future of movies.
So, how soon till baseball really starts? I’d like to rescind my earlier gripes about the MLB Network…not only did it handle the whole A-Roid business better than anyone, I just finished watching the opening day game from 1981 at Fenway Park when Carlton Fisk beat his old team with a late homer over the monster. Either I really like baseball, have no life, or am up late on a Sunday Night writing this post…D) all of the above. I’m frankly worried about the Yankees this year, but hope springs eternal, right? I know you all are stressed at the thought of lower c fake bunting his way to two early strikes to lead off the games…but it could be worse, you could be this Cubs fan.