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Hell on Wheels (2005)
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by Jason Whyte

"You'll never look at a bike the same way ever again..."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Let it be known that I am not the biggest fan of the Tour De France, the astounding annual race where bikers ride on the world’s longest and most treacherous road to win the championship. That said; the subject makes for a very satisfying documentary that is entertaining and informative and yet is not a sports film; rather an experience that tries to get into the physical endurance and soul of the athlete.

In 2003, the Tour De France celebrated its 100th birthday. Its birthday is the cause for this documentary, which faithfully details the hard work that goes into the race; not only is it the bikers themselves that endlessly cycle mile after mile (it would only take a few miles for me to stop, unless it’s all downhill) but it is also their team supporters who keep an eye on their competition, provide the necessary nourishment by way of a water bottle, or help out when they skid and crash…and when they do, it is NOT a pretty sight.

The action begins and ends in Paris, where all of the riders are overly eager and bouncing off walls wanting to get started on the race. As soon as they are off, bikers begin to fall behind, crash, stop on the side of the road to have a pee or camp with their racing crew. The racing crew is interesting to watch as well, giving unending support for their bikers who slowly appear to go crazy.

Director Pepe Danquart, who won an Oscar in 1994 for the live action short “Short Black” directs objectively, allowing us to watch and observe and come to our own opinions about the actions. The interviews are sparse but informative and understandably preachy, although we do need passionate opinions as well to show one’s love for the sport (one Tour De France historian remarks that the every-four-years Olympics mean nothing to the annual race which will never go away).

As well, we are treated to some pretty amazing footage of early 20th century tours and how different the coverage and bikers were; at one point we are shown a supportive biker casually “leave” some of his extra tire on the side of the road and “Forget” to take it with him, just in case another rider needs it. Today, it seems more of a “screw everyone else, I’m more important” attitude.

The film is exhausting; at 125 minutes it does tend to plod along a bit with the competing bikers taking much-needed breaks. Perhaps a bit of trimming down of about 15-20 minutes or so, the film may have worked better with the “less is more” approach.

What Danquart does very well is let us experience the horrors of pursuing this dream and the personal risks these riders along with their crew must endure. The passions remind me of the recent “Dust to Glory” where we were shown some very crazy riders as they traveled a 1000 mile race track full of silk, dirt and beach in Baja California. The form of race may be different but their themes are the same: the journey is more important than the finish.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=13151&reviewer=350
originally posted: 09/28/05 16:51:35
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2005 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.

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