Movie Review: “Being Evel”

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Someday, there’ll be an opera about Evel Knievel. And Johnny Knoxville, his biggest fan, will probably compose it.

But for now there’s  the Knoxville-produced “Being Evel,” a warts-and-all documentary about the daredevil-hustler, that for all its inherent evil — and the guy was a real piece of work — is still a joyous, laugh-out-loud celebration of an outlandish, larger-than-life showman.

Here was a fellow who made his living pretending not to fear the death he was so frequently courting. His fans ate it up. As one friend quotes Knievel as saying, “Nobody wants to see me die. But they don’t want to miss it if I do!”

A Butte, Montana badass with a yen for fame and a fearless streak, Knievel burst on the scene in the Vietnam Era 1960s, wrapped in a star spangled red white and blue jumpsuit that played in Middle America. And from that March 1967 appearance on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” failing to clear the fountains of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, we could not get enough of the swagger, the braggadocio, the capes and the crashes.

“You couldn’t DARE him,” one friend remembers. “If you dare him, he’d
DO it.”

Daniel Junge’s film tells something like the complete story of Knievel, catching up with childhood friends and relatives who trace his first realization that “Nobody can hurt me,” to that first motorcycle, to that first motorcycle jump — for a Honda dealership in Washington state. Motorcycling contemporaries remember him. And complain. He stole all the thunder, jumping over buses in London, rows of cars, “and not a VW among’em.”

George Hamilton, who played Knievel in a movie, is here, as are business partners (many with less than charitable things to say), sports reporters (Frank Gifford covered many of Knievel’s stunts for ABC, in between football seasons), Knievel’s kids, ex-wife and widow.

Hamilton’s interview is among the most revealing. Abused by Knievel for daring to make a movie about him, Hamilton notes how Knievel then started using quotes from the hardbitten John Milius script in his press patter. The daredevil tried to live up to his myth, never backing down once a stunt was set up, even if he seemed to know he was about to get seriously hurt or killed. That took guts.

And then there are those inspired by him, from skateboarder Tony Hawk to motorcyclist Travis Pastrana to “Jackass” Johnny Knoxville, who celebrates Knievel’s “Fast, faster and disaster” ethos. They name Knievel as the inspiration for the extreme sports movement, and the “Jackass” TV show and movies.

But their hero was also paranoid, ugly to those around him, a cheat and a chronic womanizer and a hustler.

Snake River Canyon, an Altamont-sized debacle of bikers, low-lifes and alcohol-fueled rape and depravity, is recalled in all its gruesome glory. And that’s leaving out the failed rocket “jump” across the canyon.

But the stuntman/cyclist/daredevil/showman survived that, and its fallout, and lived to a fairly ripe old age, long enough to be celebrated for the sports he inspired and the jackasses who dared to imitate him.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, with nudity, violence and profanity

Cast: Evel Knievel, Johnny Knoxville, George Hamilton, Robbie Knievel, Frank Gifford, Tony Hawk
Credits: Directed by Daniel Junge, script by Davis Coombe, Daniel Junge . A Gravitas release.

Running time: 1:40

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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