Sports would seem to be an ideal subject for movies. They are fast, colorful, suspenseful and sometimes violent. Yet they generally come out looking forced and fake, because they are used as a background for some trite melodrama. Football players lose their power on the field because their wives are frigid (Number One); drivers louse up on the racing track because their women are fickle (Winning); fighters sell out under the influence of booze, dames and the mob (Golden Boy).
Downhill Racer, a sober and straight-forward story about an aggressive young skier on the international circuit, attempts to carom past the usual clichés by taking a fictionalized documentary approach. If on occasion it takes a spill or two, Downhill still comes through as a perceptive, unsentimental portrait of a young athlete on the make.
David Chappellet (Robert Redford), a tough kid from the wrong side of the Rockies, flies to Switzerland to replace an injured member of an American amateur ski team. His lot is a starting place at the back of the order, after other skiers have chewed up and rutted the downhill course. Still, Chappellet goes as though pursued by demons, and he wins a crack at an Olympic championship. Along the way he wrangles with his coach (Gene Hackman), makes the usual number of enemies, and sleeps with a couple of girls, one disadvantaged and one super-sleek (Camilla Sparv). A routine routine, but Director Michael Ritchie freshens up his first film with some electrifying camera work. The exhilarating danger of downhill racing is perfectly portrayed with footage shot by Pro Skier Joe Jay Jalbert, who held a camera in his hands instead of poles. Gene Hackman has just the right combination of brio and go-go-go as the coach, and Robert Redford's performance as the skier rings true down to the last schuss. Downhill Racer is a modest effort but a good one. It may be the first film in history that starts at the top, goes steadily downhill, and still stays interesting along the way.