18th December 2020 (UK VOD Premiere)
The Racer follows a rider who, after being dropped from the team, is reinstated following a doping error.
Kieron J. Walsh
Louis Talpe, Matteo Simoni, Tara Lee
Blending fiction with reality, The Racer tells the story of Dom Chabol, a veteran road cyclist competing at the Irish stage of the 1998 Tour de France. His role in the team is what’s known in the cycling world as a ‘Domestique’. Their job is to essentially support the team’s sprinter and enable them to win the race. This is done by setting the pace and crucially blocking the wind, enabling the sprinter to enter their slipstream. I have no idea how that works scientifically; dammit Jim, I’m a reviewer not a scientist! Anyway, Dom dreams of one day winning a stage of his own. Now in his late 30’s, he knows his time to do so is running out. His worst fears come to light when he’s dropped from the team completely. But in a twist of fate, an mishap with a teammate and performance enhancing drugs puts Dom right back in the saddle.
The Racer is The Wrestler on wheels. Granted, it’s far less depressing than Aronofsky’s stellar picture; if it was any more, we’d be in Requiem For A Dream territory, but a lot of the same plot beats remain. It’s a character study of an athlete who has given his life to the sport and is on the way out. We see the sacrifices these men have had to make, physically, mentally and personally to get to where they are. Equally as important is the fleeting nature of his chosen route in life. In one scene, as Dom is pleading for a new contract to the team’s manager Viking, he argues that is experience is invaluable and he can pass on his knowledge. Rather callously, Viking responds with “The wheel spins again, and spins again, and spins again. That’s all the experience you need.” The wheel-spinning example almost feels like an analogy of the sport, or indeed any sport, as a whole. The players are temporary, with younger, faster, stronger talent always snapping at the heels of those who currently enjoy the spotlight.
It’s these moments of despair and determination where The Racer really shines, largely due to the excellent portrayal of a man who won’t – or can’t – quit by Louis Talpe. Cycling is literally his life. It’s exquisitely depicted as a literal manifestation too through Dom’s dodgy ticker and his methods to kickstart his heart. It definitely isn’t what Motley Crue were singing about in the 80’s, that’s for sure.
While Dom may be support for his team mate, backing for the lead performance here comes from the rest of his cycling pals and a decidedly unpolished but fiercely passionate masseur ‘Sonny’ McElhone (Iain Glen; Game of Thrones, Tomb Raider). A father figure in many ways, Sonny’s way of life is complete opposite to those whose legs he rubs. Gleefully opting for decadence in double cheeseburgers when they’re forced to eat raw pasta and relaxing in the team car with a cigarette as the group struggle through practice, Sonny provides most of the comedy for The Racer. It’s an inspired casting choice in Ian Glen whose mountainous rugged charm is impossible not to warm to. On the contrary, Dom’s team leader, the rider he must aid at all costs, is a wholly unlikeable fellow by the name of Lupo ‘Tartare’ Marino (Matteo Simoni). Cocksure and full of confidence when in front of the other riders, Tartare falls apart before every race, with only one man able to calm his nerves. And yet, Tartare insists on continuously showing unappreciation for his friend.
The other noteworthy character is Dr Lynn Brennan who is, of course, Dom’s love interest. Played by Dublin native Tara Lee, she has the natural Irish agreeableness and is quite lovely, if I do say so myself. Alas, conflict arises when her devotion to helping people clashes with the ingrained way things work in the world of contemporary professional cycling. Dom must also content with family matters, of which he’s been shirking to pursue his two-wheeled career. Admittedly, it’s these sub plots where The Racer hits a pothole. As wonderfully played as Lee’s Brennan is, I didn’t care too much about their blossoming romance. And the interactions with his sister are solely completed over the phone, so there’s minimal emotional connection there too. Ultimately, it makes Dom appear to be a rather cold and selfish character overall. Tonally, it never quite commits to the serious nature of the doping scandal, remaining mostly playful and light-hearted save for a few moments of sentiment. It’s not as blasé as, say, Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, but it feels like I was being asked to shrug off the use of PED’s much like the team do, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Me skipping breakfast is normal. Injecting drugs into my butt-cheek is not.
What of the action sequences I hear you cry! I was rather surprised by just how mesmerised I was by the short scenes of the cycling competitions. There’s a healthy blend of extreme long shots to capture all the riders in their multicoloured jersey, like a sort of racing rainbow, and sweaty close-ups to convey the bodily exertion. One of my favourite shots, however, is the simple composition of switching gear. You know how things are about to get much faster in the Fast & Furious movies when we get aggressively fast shots of a gearstick being pushed and a foot dramatically putting the pedal to the metal? The Racer has that – but for a bike. Click, clack, gear changes: in a heart-pounding close up. The image of the chain moving from one rung to another is oddly satisfying. A thumping up-tempo but still tense synth score compliments these sequences perfectly and succeeds in making me care about a sport I previously had no interest in. I didn’t get quite as far as excitedly ordering a pair of Lycra skin tight shorts, but I was ruddy well close.
The best sports movies transcend the activities they portray and are remembered because of the people it features. Moneyball. Rush. Ford vs Ferrari. And who could forget the most realistic sports movie in history, BASEketball. With its magnificent performances and scandal aplenty, The Racer is an outstanding film which takes a podium finish next to the genre greats.
Vertigo Releasing presents The Racer in cinemas and on streaming platforms from 18 December 2020.
First-rate work from all, especially Iain Glen, Louis Talpe and Tara Lee
Terrific depiction of a man being left behind by the sport he's given his all to
Competitive cycling has never looked so dramatic. Those gear change shots are divine.
Subplots are hard to invest in