Three of the first few talking heads in I Am Evel Knievel—the documentary profiling the eponymous daredevil—are the ever-bloviating Matthew McCounaghey (or a boardwalk caricaturist’s version of the actor, complete with a “Just Keep Livin’” t-shirt), homophobic donkey-sauce-enthusiast Guy Fieri (adorned in a full motocross outfit) and an old leather wallet, fished out of a whiskey-filled inflatable pool, masquerading as rap-rocker Kid Rock. If you were hoping the film would be an in-depth study of a captivating stunt man and troubled soul, the presence of these three in the opening minutes signifies that the next hour and a half will be nothing more than surface-level, machismo-drenched ass-kissery.
Evel Knievel led a fascinating life. He was born poor. Grew up a degenerate. Failed as a motorcycle racer. Became the most famous stuntman in the world. Made millions. Lost millions. And then died. But that’s as much information as I Am Evel Knievel is willing to forfeit. Derik Murray and David Ray’s film is the cinematic equivalent of a Wikipedia entry, presenting the “what?” of Robert Knievel’s life but never bothering to ask about the “why?”. The majority of the film is dedicated to meandering nostalgia and impotent reminiscing that culminates in a dull film about one of the least dull Americans to ever live.
There’s a general tone of arrogance and condescension that permeates every frame of I Am Evel Knievel. It’s the same kind of unbearable, Red Bull drenched, grab-life-by-the-horns pseudo-philosophy that makes X-Games athletes (and that one guy from your high school with who bought a sky-diving Groupon) insufferable conversationalists. It’s the idea that life is only worth living if you’re risking your health and safety for a momentary rush of adrenaline; anyone with the gaul to be afraid of heights, have an office job or prefer to spend Saturday evenings on the couch just aren’t livin’ (as Matthew McConaughey’s shirt commands). I would never begrudge a person what gives them their jollies, but the film adopts an ubermensch bravado and tone of condescension that seems to taunt the viewer for not being macho enough to relate to a professional stuntman.
But the film’s most egregious mistake is using Knievel’s anti-social behavior as a measuring unit of machismo and bravado. As a young man Evel Knievel was a shit. He was a degenerate and a thief, eventually graduating to full-fledged bank robber. But the film treats his crimes as nothing more than youthful indiscretions. And perhaps that’s okay. After all, Knievel made his name as a rule defying, anti-establishment rebel so his (possibly) tall-tales are all part of the mystique that made him a sensation. However, as the film progresses, Knievel’s womanizing, adultery, drunkenness and general assholery is written off with a laugh and a grin. The closest I am Evel Knievel gets to interesting is via Linda Knievel–Evel’s first wife– a dynamic woman still struggling to reckon the public and private sides of her ex-husband. And directors Derik Murray and David Ray don’t seem to know how to handle a subject who doesn’t mythologize Knievel’s every move. Before Linda Knievel’s testimony becomes too heavy, her heart-breaking admissions are edited together with Knievel sycophants who recite his indiscretions as playful anecdotes of a charming old cad.
I Am Evel Knievel is no more revelatory on the life and times of Robert “Evel” Knievel than an hour and a half interview with one of the daredevil’s countless action figures would be. It’s a painfully dull movie, whose head and heart are in all the wrong places. There’s no arguing that Evel Knievel is a pop-culture staple and a treasured piece of Americana. But I Am Evel Knievel is an hour and a half of vapid hyperbole, expounding on the myth but refusing to address the man beneath.
Craig is a writer living in north Florida with his wife and ornery dog. He writes about film and TV. He creates and publishes comic books under the label Gentleman Baby Comics. He's currently wishing his bio sounded more engaging.