A strong contender for the greatest toy of all the time is the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle. It was amazing! For those of you who don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, allow me to enlighten you. Picture, if you will, an action figure of Evel Knievel, about the size of a Ken doll. He comes with the outfit just like Evel wears, and a motorcycle that looks just like the one he uses for his jumps. Then there’s a plastic base with a crank on it. You put Evel on the bike, put the bike in the base, and start winding up the crank. When you suddenly stop cranking, the bike shoots out! Usually you’d launch it toward a ramp, often made out of an album cover, which would send the bike flying through the air. My brother and I often sent ours hurtling down the stairs. These toys could take a beating, after all…like the real Evel Knievel. I guess if you didn’t live through it, it’s hard to understand what a cultural phenomenon Evel Knievel was in the 70’s. He was so popular that it led to a 1977 feature film in which he played himself…”Viva Knievel.”
As the film begins, we see how Evel Knievel spends his free time…sneaking into orphanages in the middle of the night and delivering Stunt Cycle toys to the kids. The next day, preparations begin for his next big jump. During a press event, Evel meets a sexy female photographer, Kate Morgan (Lauren Hutton). She’s been sent by her editor to capture photos of the spectacular crash that is sure to happen. Also showing up is a young boy named Tommy (Eric Olson), the son of Evel’s boozehound mechanic, Will (Gene Kelly). Tommy barely knows his father, after all, he’s been off at boarding school since his mom died in childbirth. They took ‘em young in 77.
Also paying Evel and his crew a visit is an old jumping buddy, Jessie (Marjoe Gortner). He’s been dispatched by event promoter Stanley Millard (Leslie Nielsen) to sign Evel on for a series of jumps in Mexico, each of which will earn him $100 thousand. However, Evel is unwilling to break his commitments with his current promoter, Ben Andrews (Red Buttons). As it turns out, Millard is actually a drug smuggler, who plans to use Knievel as cover for carrying a huge drug shipment stateside.
Well, the day finally arrives for Evel’s big jump…over an open-topped cage full of lions and tigers. After giving a rousing speech to the crowd about the dangers of drugs, Evel does the jump…and crashes on the landing. He then tells the crowd that this was his last jump. While in the hospital, though, he changes his mind and decides to take the Mexico job.
Now, Millard sets his plans in motion, building and exact replica of Knevel’s truck to transport the hidden drugs. But another part of the plan is Evel’s death. He figures that no authorities would dare stop Evel Knievel’s funeral procession, so his goons rig one of the motorcycles to blow a tire on landing which will result in a horrible crash. Soon, Will gets wise of the plan, so Millard has him locked in a sanitarium under the watchful eye of Dabney Coleman. Things get even crazier when Jessie decides to clunk Evel on the head with a helmet and take his place for the big jump. Somehow, Evel has to save his friend and stop the drug dealers before it’s too late.
Not since “Citizen Kane” has their been a cinematic work of art quite like…ok, just kidding there. In all seriousness, though, “Viva Knievel” must be seen to be believed. It’s strange enough to have this motorcycle jumper, who most definitely could not act, as the star of the film. Even stranger is the approach taken for his on-screen persona. It’s part rock star, with throngs of fans and reporters surrounding him at every turn…part gangster, as he threatens poor Red Buttons over money while wearing gaudy diamond rings and gold watches…and part Jesus as, in the opening scene, a child literally tosses away his crutches and hobbles over to Knievel exclaiming, “You’re the reason I’m walkin’, Evel!”
What really boggles the mind with this film is the supporting cast. I mean you’ve got Gene Kelly, folks. Gene Kelly! The man who not only starred in, but co-directed “Singin’ in the Rain.” How does he end up getting second billing to Evel Knievel? And that’s just the start…Lauren Hutton, Red Buttons, Leslie Nielsen! I can understand Marjoe Gortner being in this film, but the rest of them?
In general, the film just doesn’t feel very cinematic. It is shot in a style reminiscent of gear-head TV fare like “The Dukes of Hazzard” or “BJ and the Bear.” Even the motorcycle jumps are not very spectacular. As for the script, it tries way too hard to cram in every possible gimmick. You’ve got a father son reunion…by the way, dad’s also an alcoholic…there’s a sexy love interest for Evel (even though he was married with kids in real life)…car chases…gun play…funky theme song. You name it, it’s all there!
“Viva Knievel” is a terrible movie, make no mistake. But I dare say you’ll have a lot of fun with it. Maybe not as much fun as you would with the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle, though.