“My life may be short,” declares Evel Knievel (George Eads) in TNT’s new made-for-TV movie, “but it’s going to be anything but dull.” Evel Knievel, a new movie (tonight through Sunday, 8 p.m. ET) manages to invert that ratio: It’s seemingly endless, but a perfect snore.
The movie’s failure is in part attributable to the negative charisma of George Eads, the lantern-jawed co-star of CSI, the CBS forensic drama that is the top-rated series now on TV. Eads must have some outlaw charm that I just don’t get; when a much-publicized salary battle got him temporarily fired by CBS, a contingent of incarcerated women were reportedly among the fans fiercely lobbying (online) for his return. (Eads and his co-star Jorja Fox have since returned to the show with their tails between their legs, resigning themselves to a humble $100,000 per episode.) Handed the role of any actor’s dreams—Knievel at his best was a showman’s showman: P.T. Barnum, Bill Clinton, and Elvis all rolled into one—Eads comes off, not as a megalomaniacal genius of self-promotion, but as a preening and vapid jerk.
It’s actually quite mystifying why this film, helmed by veteran action director John Badham (Blue Thunder, Point of No Return) and based on the definitive Knievel biography by Steve Mandich, fails so utterly to capture the outrageous appeal, the near-toxic magnetism of the real-life Evel Knievel. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Knievel was his wholesale invention, not only of his own extravagant persona, but of the very “sport” he was famous for. A hard-luck kid from Butte, Mont., Knievel married a hometown girl named Linda Bork (played here by erstwhile Playboy model Jaime Pressly), worked for a while in a copper mine, then went through jobs selling insurance, cars, and gravestones until finally reinventing himself as a freelance motorcycle daredevil (cycle jumping had been done before, of course, but never on ABC’s Wide World of Sports for an audience of millions). Before long, Knievel was a national sensation, despite (or more likely, because of) his spectacular failure to clear both the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and a chasm above Snake River Canyon in Idaho. The day after the Snake River debacle in 1974, Evel’s story was big enough to make the front page: “Ford Pardons Nixon” read one headline; “Evel Knievel Fails To Die,” read the other.
Yet somehow Knievel’s incredible life—the subject of a heart-stopping edition of E! True Hollywood Story—seems to be impervious to fictionalization. To date, he has been the subject of three biopics, all of which were critical and box-office bombs. Then there was the much-mocked thriller Viva Knievel!, in which, at the apex of his popularity, Evel made the unfortunate mistake of attempting to play himself. TNT’s version contains a jump over a tank of live rattlesnakes with a cougar tethered at the other end; a mass race riot at a motorcycle rally; and red-white-and-blue leather jumpsuits accessorized with yellow wraparound aviator sunglasses. Still, it manages to be boring. What gives?
As is so often the case with made-for-TV biopics, the bottom line is: It’s the script, stupid. The writers of Evel Knievel made the fatal mistake of dutifully checking off boxes from a chronological spreadsheet: roguish teenage courtship; pre-jump pep talk into mirror; midlife slide into alcoholic self-pity. Worse, the Evel Knievel teleplay misses out on all the best chances for quotable lines. Asked about his motivation to keep jumping, the real-life Evel became a pop poet: “It’s like straddling a steel spear and hurtling it into space.” Eads’ Evel is more prosaic. Challenged by his wife to slow down for the family’s sake, he intones TV-ishly: “I jump bikes, Linda. That’s what I do.” Asked what he plans to do with a $6 million check from a sponsor, this TV-movie Evel replies, “I plan to blow every penny,” earning a polite chuckle from the assembled press corps. But the real Knievel had a more colorful way of displaying his extravagance, boasting in one interview: “I’ve had every airplane, every ship, every yacht, every racehorse, every diamond, and probably, with the exception of two or three, every woman I wanted in my lifetime. I’ve lived a better life than any king or prince or president.” It’s possible that legal constraints kept the filmmakers from quoting Evel’s interviews directly, but couldn’t they have at least approximated his vivid speaking style? In the end, I came away from Evel Knievel with only one quotable quote. When a friend suggests he limit the length of one jump because, “Concessions do a lot better when you make your jump,” an annoyed Evel throws down the gauntlet: “Did we come here to sell nachos or open a can of whup-ass?”
I hope that both nachos and whup-ass will be on the menu this weekend when I attend an event tied in to the premiere of Evel Knievel, one that promises to be far more exciting than the movie itself. Evel’s son Robbie Knievel, who has surpassed all of his father’s records in an extraordinary 33-year-long motorcycle-jumping career, will attempt to sail over six vintage fighter planes on the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier docked in the Hudson River off the West Side of Manhattan. The jump will air live on TNT at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday, just prior to the second airing of Evel Knievel. Even if you skip the movie, watch the jump—it’s the best TV you’ll find this weekend, and if you look closely, you might see me in the press bleachers, white-knuckled with anticipation, but happy as a clam. Next week, I’ll be back (in my “Surfergirl” column) to blog about the event and about the uniquely touching figure of Robbie Knievel, the Hamlet of motorcycle daredevils.