In the mood for an inspirational sports story? You won’t get it in this hard-edged, documentary style 1969 sports film starring Robert Redford (a star but not yet a superstar) as a reckless Olympic-level skier who is utterly selfish and cold-hearted. A pre-“French Connection” Gene Hackman is his coach, probably a good guy and a bit off-put at having to deal with this grade-A douche who, like it or not, might be a champion.
As the DVD extras in this typically strong Criterion package inform us, “Downhill Racer” was originally conceived by Redford as a film to be directed by a hot new European director who shared his passion for skiing. Roman Polanski, however, was too busy with “Rosemary’s Baby,” so Redford concentrated his efforts on working with writer James Salter and first-time feature film director Michael Ritchie (“The Bad News Bears”) to craft this deliberately cold lack-of-character study. The ski footage is as exciting as you can imagine and “Racer” is often as intriguing as it is chilly. Still, it’s primarily a cerebral experience, hobbled by a protagonist who is incapable of changing and a bit dull. Redford and Ritchie inverted the formula in their next collaboration, placing a well-intentioned idealist in conflict with the morally dangerous world of electoral politics in “The Candidate.” That made for a much more engaging movie, but “Downhill Racer” remains worthwhile — and notable historically. Redford says the troubles he encountered making it ultimately led him to conceive of a project to help emerging filmmakers called “Sundance.” That’s more than a footnote.