Cult Movies: 1970s stuntathon Viva Kneivel 'a proper so bad it's brilliant cult classic'

Viva Knievel! is a truly remarkable slice of American exploitation movie making
Ralph McLean

Viva Knievel!

IT WAS hard to avoid Evel Knievel when I was growing up. A kind of one-man Harlem Globetrotters for the stunt rider world of the 1970s, he was forever on TV screens roaring his bike over endless coaches and assorted animals, wearing his famously patriotic stars and stripes jumpsuit and invariably smashing his bones to smithereens when he crashed back down to earth.

To a wide-eyed action-obsessed kid in the 70s, he was a true American hero, albeit one who spent more time in traction than out of it. And don't even get me started on the action figure with the wind-up bike you could buy to recreate the stunt racer's most audacious jumps. I wrote ingratiating letters to Santa and begged my mother for that item for most of my formative years.

That's why I'm excited to see the blonde haired bad boy's solitary outing as a big screen actor finally arrive on Blu-ray. Viva Knievel is a truly remarkable slice of American exploitation movie making. It's seriously dumb, dimly lit and devoid of any common sense (much like the man himself, if most stories are to be believed) but don't let that put you off. This cheesy concoction of cash-in cinema is also hugely entertaining in its own moronic way.

Released in 1977, at the peak of Knievel mania in school yards the world over, it tells the tale of a wild and crazy motorcycle stuntman (old Evel basically playing himself) who claims to have made his last jump only to be coaxed back into the game by a loving photographer Kate Morgan (Lauren Hutton).

He has a show in Mexico where he must face off against his top rival, a young buck called Jesse (Marjoe Gortner), and deal with the antics of a trio of one-time friends –played by cult favourites Leslie Neilson, Red Buttons and Cameron Mitchell – who actually intend to kill him off and use his corpse to smuggle back 50 million dollars of cocaine into America.

If that sounds ridiculous, then that's because it is. Director Gordon Douglas, making his last film, was a veteran of dodgy blaxploitation offerings and crime dramas like They Call Me Mr Tibbs! and he hands in a true turkey here, even if it is one that's genuinely hilarious for all the wrong reasons.

The dialogue is clunky, the action sequences cack-handed and Knievel's jumpsuit is a better actor than the man himself. A mumbling, uncertain blank page on screen, he's worth the price of admission on his own.

Of the supporting cast, Neilson steals the show playing the bad guy, racing sportscars through the desert and waving guns about with the same straight-faced brilliance he brought to the role of Frank Drebin in Police Squad and the Naked Gun films.

The flapping flares and garishly coloured fly-away collars of every single actor on screen will dazzle your eyes, while your brain tells you to get out quick. A proper "so bad it's brilliant" cult classic, Viva Knievel is out on Warners Blu-ray. Take the jump and get a copy now.

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