Are you ready to witness the king of daredevil stunts? Are you prepared to witness the one and only Evel Knievel on his greatest adventure? Then buckle up and get ready for Viva Knievel! the 1977 action-packed adventure film that will have you on the edge of your seat, well, at least leaning slightly forward.
Evel Knievel stars as himself in this action-packed tale that is so 70s you’ll be tempted to break out your bell bottoms and platform shoes and disco dance your way through the credits, and if there has ever been a film so egregiously ego-driven than this one I have yet to witness it. Basically, this film is a vanity project writ large. And just how bad do things get? Well, the movie opens with Evel Knievel sneaking into an orphanage late one night to deliver presents to a group of children, and if you think a man sneaking into a bedroom full of kids is bad it gets worse. He’s there to bring presents to these poor homeless children, which of course, turns out to be bunch of Evel Knievel action figures because his narcissism knows no bounds. I’m only shocked that at no point in time does Knievel save puppies from a burning building or discover the cure for cancer. Mind you, we do get one of the boys casting away his crutches and telling Knievel that he’ll walk after his accident, just as Knievel did.
The plot is painfully simplistic and lacks any sort of depth or nuance and right from the start I wanted to punch Knievel right in the face. After that awesome introduction to our title character we are then introduced to his alcoholic mechanic Will Atkins (Gene Kelly), who was a former stunt rider himself before his wife died and drove him to drink, which leads to the film’s After School Special subplot of Will’s estranged son Tommy (Eric Olson) showing up from boarding school and asking to join the tour, but Will is cold to the kid because the little monster is a constant reminder of his dead wife. So it’s up to Knievel to mend this relationship and possibly broker peace in the Middle East. Hey, if you can jump sixteen buses on a bike what can’t you do? As if solving father/son issues wasn’t enough Evel also has to deal with photojournalist Kate Morgan (Lauren Hutton) who has been sent by her editor with the hope of photographing Knievel dying during his jump, yet somehow this callous attitude will be turned around and a romance will bloom between these two.
Note: In this movie, Evel Knievel is apparently single and there is no mention of his then-wife, Linda, or his (at the time) three children.
The real plot kicks in with the appearance of Jessie (Marjoe Gortner), a former protégé who has now turned junkie and secretly works for drug lord Stanley Millard (Leslie Nielsen), and the villainous scheme they’ve cooked up deals with convincing Evel to go down to Mexico for a big publicity jump where they will then swap out Evel Knievel’s trailer for a duplicate, which will have a massive supply of drugs hidden in the walls. Unbeknownst to Jesse, Millard and his partner Cortland (Albert Salmi) plan to make this jump a fatal one because they believe a funeral procession containing the body of the famous Evel Knievel is less likely to search it when crossing back into the United States. Needless to say, there are a few hiccups with this plan, such as Atkins stumbling onto the plot and being drugged and then sent to a psychiatric ward under the control of the corrupt Ralph Thompson (Dabney Coleman), just so he’s out of the way. But at the last-minute Jesse knocks Knievel out and does the fatal jump himself, because he’s both a junkie and an idiot. Maybe hiring a drug addict wasn’t the best if ideas.
At no point does this movie feel like anything other than a cheap attempt to cash in on Evel Knievel’s popularity at the time rather than a well-thought-out story. The dialogue is clunky with acting so wooden I bet they had to spray for termites, especially from Knievel himself who is as good at acting as he is jumping Snake River Canyon. Furthermore, the film is riddled with cliches and stereotypes, particularly in its portrayal of Mexican culture. If at some point Knievel had teamed up with Speedy Gonzales to thwart Leslie Nielsen I wouldn’t have been the least surprised because other than it not being animated this movie is pretty much a cartoon. That the film is littered with veteran actors, including Red Buttons as Knievel’s embezzling promoter, is all the sadder because even the most talented person couldn’t deliver these cheesy lines they’re forced to deliver, and seeing legendary Gene Kelly playing second banana to a real-life blowhard is more tragic than a hundred motorcycle spills.
• When Kate tells Evel she is a “Ms.” not a “Miss” she responds with “Oh, that makes you one of them” followed by the question “Are you a woman or a Ms?” because, apparently, being a narcissist wasn’t enough he’s also a sexist jerk.
• The first jump we see is Evel jumping over cages full of lions and tigers but no mention is made of the fact that the true danger is to those poor big cats who would most likely not survive if an asshole on a motorcycle crashed down on top of them.
• Evel’s record-breaking 150-foot jump over the lions and tigers is all kinds of bullshit as the longest successful jump Evel Knievel ever managed was his 133-foot jump over 14 Greyhound buses.
• Silent partner Irwin Allen ended up directing 80% of this movie after director Gordon Douglas became ill early in the production, making this a different “disaster” outing from Irwin Allen.
• Gene Kelly’s work in such films as Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris pales in comparison to his drug-induced freak out in the psychiatric ward.
While the script was a cliched mess, and the special effects were beyond special, this film remains a hilarious time capsule of the 1970s, from Evel’s over-the-top jumpsuits to the hilariously bad dialogue, this movie has it all. And let’s not forget the stunts in this movie which are so over-the-top and ridiculous you’ll wonder if Evel was trying to kill himself for real. But hey, that’s what makes it so entertaining! Of course, for insurance purposes, all the more dangerous motorcycle stunts were performed by professional stuntman Gary Charles Davis while the big jumps were taken from stock footage of Evel Knievel at various events.
Note: Three months before this film premiered, Evel Knievel and his associates attacked promoter Shelly Saltman with an aluminum baseball bat because the book he wrote painted an unflattering picture of Knievel’s character, this resulted in jail time for Knievel as well as the loss of marketing endorsements as well as deals with Harley-Davidson and Ideal Toys and also caused this film to be pulled from several markets.
Basically, this is not a great movie, one could go so far as to say it’s pretty terrible, but if you’re in the mood for some mindless fun and a whole lot of laughs, grab some popcorn and settle in for Viva Knievel! as it is the perfect movie to watch with friends and a few alcoholic beverages, just don’t try any of Evel’s stunts at home, seriously, don’t do it because even Evel Knievel was crap at it half the time.
Viva Knievel! (1977)
Movie Rank - 4/10
Viva Knievel! is a hilarious romp through the 70s that is sure to leave you laughing, cringing, and wondering how Evel Knievel managed to survive all those insane stunts while also inspiring orphans and fighting crime. So rev up your engines and get ready for the ride of your life!