March 26, 2012

Any film calling itself Rad had best be taken with a grain of salt, regardless of its subject matter. As it happens, the subject matter of Rad constitutes probably the dorkiest storyline we’ve seen this year.

It’s all about the exciting world of BMX cross-country biking, in which a bunch of teenagers jump up and down, twirl, spin, and perform other herky-jerky maneuvers on their little bikes. I don’t even know what BMX stands for, if anything, so I’m not qualified to comment on the authenticity of the biking scenes. But they appeared mindless and improbable, which probably means they’re accurate.

The locale is a small American town (although the extras speak with Canadian accents), in which some money-grubbing businessmen decide to hold the world’s first BMX race, full of stunts and obstacles. The finest racers from the land are recruited, but the race seems fixed in favor of the world champ, who stands to win a fat contract from big-time sponsors if he wins.

But hold everything. Turns out there’s kid in town whose bike racing/twisting/jumping is totally awesome. Radical. Rad, if you will. He’s not about to take the fix lying down, even when the bad dudes try to change the rules on him. He qualifies for the race and the big showdown comes, as the actors go to their trailers for coffee and the stunt riders strap on their concealing helmets and go for it.

If you’ve seen Rocky, you know what happens. But director Hal Needham isn’t taking any chances—he’s even cast Mrs. Rocky, Talia Shire, as the hero’s mom. Naturally, it’s up to her to try to talk the kid out of it, as she does with the Rock.

But our hero doesn’t care that the college SATs are the same day as the qualifying heats. Man, he’s gotta race. And he gets some encouragement from an out-of-town girl who is a pro racer herself, and who quickly falls for the lad’s backwoods charm.

She also recognizes his talent: “It took me six months to airwalk; it took you one afternoon,” she says admiringly. Airwalking is something you do with your bike while arcing about 10 feet off the ground.

Needham, who used to direct Burt Reynolds’ down-home comedies, doesn’t even try to get around the corny storyline. Oddly enough, this tactic works. The movie may be ludicrous, but it has its entertaining moments. The leads are fresh, especially Lori Laughlin as the big-city girl who does a bike dance during the sock hop. Ray Walston and Jack Weston provide rather tired support as the pillars of the community.

Since the film doesn’t carry a disclaimer that says, “Professional bikers; please, don’t try this at home,” a lot of kids are probably going to wind up with collections of bumps and bruises, attempting to imitate the riders. When is somebody going to make a film that dramatizes the excitement and reward of studying for college SATs? That’d be radical.

First published in the Herald, April 1, 1986

I don’t know how I failed to mention that the competition is known as Helltrack, but somehow I did. (And by the way, it was shot in Calgary.) If you’re wondering how I didn’t know what BMX stood for, it was because this was before the Internet and I was frequently apart from any kind of research sources.

This is how I wrote about movies in 1986: I would go from an evening screening to the AP office across the street from both the Northwest Preview Room (a tiny little space for 35 mm. previews) and the Seattle Times building. I would walk into the office of the bureau chief and retrieve a slightly-larger-than-typewriter-sized box left there for the use of Seattle-based reporters for the Herald (as far as I could tell I was the only one). Sometimes I would nod to the AP reporters who sat there in their office; they must’ve wondered who I was and who set up such a cockeyed system (I was never without the cringy sense that I didn’t belong there, which encouraged me to write my reviews as quickly as possible). I would write a review on a teeny screen on this bulky black box, and when I was finished writing, would dial a telephone number (and some codes or something) and place the receiver on the phone-sized openings on the top of the machine, where it would screech and send the story. Then I would fold up the machine, place it back in its corner, and skulk out. I am sure this affected my writing in some strange way. All of this now seems like some kind of vaguely-remembered dream, thankfully long in the past.