The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Cinema/Digital] - THE RACER | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Cinema/Digital] - THE RACER

the racer review
An aging cyclist grapples with his declining career during the Irish stages of the 1998 Tour de France.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Kieron J. Walsh

Starring: Louis Talpe, Matteo Simoni, Tara Lee, Iain Glen

the racer poster

Few sports have been tarnished by cheating scandals quite like professional cycling. Ask any random punter to name a famous cyclist and they'll most likely reply with the name of Lance Armstrong, not because they know him for his sporting achievements but because his name is now a byword for illegal performance enhancement.

The full scale of the sport's issues with doping came to light during the 1998 edition of the cycling world's Superbowl, the Tour de France. While no riders failed drug tests during the event, several were disqualified when steroids were found in their hotel rooms. Subsequent confessions and revelations have since attested that the majority of riders in the event were using some form of performance enhancement drugs, mostly the steroid EPO.

the racer review

With The Racer, director Kieron J. Walsh takes us back to the opening stages of the 1998 Tour de France, which were held in Ireland, to tell a fictional tale of an aging rider grappling with an uncertain future amid the madness of the race.

Walsh's underdog athlete is Belgian rider Dom Chabol (Louis Talpe, a handsome hybrid of Guy Pearce and Liev Schreiber). At 38, he knows his career is almost up and he's entering the Tour under a cloud of uncertainty, the team's manager refusing to discuss renewing his contract until after the race. Dom has been a loyal servant of his team for two decades, performing the role of "domestique", a rider whose job is not to win stages, but to ensure the team's star, cocky Italian Tartare (Matteo Simoni), takes the yellow jersey. As one character cruelly puts it, Dom is a "professional loser."

Those cutting words come from the lips of Lynn (Tara Lee), the pretty tour doctor Dom falls for over the course of the three stages. Lynn becomes aware of Dom's drug use and tries to discourage him, particularly after seeing him almost succumb to a late night heart attack. But Dom knows that with practically every other rider similarly cheating, he simply can't compete through legal methods.

the racer review

The Racer takes a cynical but realistic view of professional cycling in an era when cheating was accepted as something everyone guessed was occurring on a grand scale but had yet to be exposed with evidence. This might be a turnoff for some viewers, particularly those who are fans of the sport, as the movie refuses to take a moral position regarding its protagonist's cheating.

For those of us who can get onboard, Walsh's sports drama crackles with the energy of a crime thriller. Plunging us into a politically incorrect, hyper-masculine world where winning - or in Dom's case, ensuring someone else's victory - is all that counts, it bears the influence of the sports movies of former baseball player turned filmmaker Ron Shelton, and you could imagine Kevin Costner playing the lead role if this were a Hollywood movie from decades past. It follows a template we've seen in several boxing dramas, with an aging athlete caught between his professional ambitions and the love of a good woman, and while it hits a few familiar notes, it's always in tune.

the racer review

What makes The Racer so distinctive is in how it's also essentially a crime drama. It asks us to sympathise with and even root for someone who is breaking the law, and who coerces others into similarly discarding their ethics (Lynn risks her fledgling career at one point when she's asked to perform a drug test on Dom). It's testament to Walsh's directorial skills and particularly the taciturn charisma of Belgian actor Talpe, that we remain invested in Dom's story. Immediately after watching The Racer I found myself asking how I could have so much empathy with a man who was helping to destroy his sport, but then I reminded myself that cinema has made me empathise with far worse figures. Most crime thrillers ask us to root for bad men, so why shouldn't a sports drama?

Like the character he plays here, Talpe is in his late thirties and has spent most of his career in supporting roles. On the strength of his performance in The Racer, I suspect we'll be seeing him wearing the acting equivalent of the yellow jersey in the future. His is a (literally) muscular performance that recalls the early work of Stallone in the Rocky franchise. Walsh frequently shoots Talpe's body in close-ups while riding or on an exercise bike, capturing every sinew and popping vein in detail. The camera and editing reduces Talpe and Dom's body into constituent muscles, taking him apart like a slaughterhouse butcher, and it's made clear that while sport produces megastars, many athletes are reduced to the level of human livestock. This idea that Dom is a victim of a cynical sport, as much as a willing participant, goes a long way in keeping us onboard with his battered and broken rider all the way to the finish line.

The Racer is in Irish cinemas now and in UK cinemas and on Digital from December 18th.

2020 movie reviews