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Grand Prix


There's vroom for error in an all-star racing epic

Rod Lott May 18th, 2011

Here's a round of actor math: James Garner > Vin Diesel.

grandprix

While "Fast Five" continues burning up the box office, Warner Home Video brings one of the all-time great racing movies to Blu-ray with 1966's "Grand Prix." Directed by the great John Frankenheimer ("The Manchurian Candidate," "Seconds," "Ronin"), it hails from the days when going to the movies was a real event. This, for instance, comes complete with its nearly five-minute overture and an intermission.

Legendary designer Saul Bass' indelible stamp is all over the title sequence, complete with split screens and checkerboard images as race car drivers prepare for the Monaco Grand Prix. James Garner (TV’s “The Rockford Files”) stars as Pete, who gets kicked off the team after his error nearly kills another driver (Brian Bedford, Disney's animated "Robin Hood"), and immediately eyes a second chance.

No worries; the soapy, overstuffed script has plenty of other characters to follow on and off the track. Returning champion Yves Montand (“Let’s Make Love”) romances Eva Marie Saint (“North by Northwest”); Antonio Sabàto Sr. (“Beyond the Law”) does the same to singer Françoise Hardy. Garner, meanwhile, has an eye for (a very young) Jessica Walter (TV’s “Arrested Development”).

These scenes, unfortunately, are plentiful and inactive, putting the brakes on what otherwise might be the best vehicle for vehicles on film, period. Races are shown in length and loving detail. Unlike "Fast Five" and its quick-cut, CGI-fortified big brothers, "Grand Prix"'s considerable action feels real. Because some of Frankenheimer's cameras were mounted on the cars, the 200-mph speeds are palpable and flat-out exhilarating. The expert editing is masterful, every bit deserving of the Oscar it took home that year.

It's just really too bad it had to have, you know, actors. Actually, so many of them — including Japanese cinema icon Toshirō Mifune (“Seven Samurai”) — are good, but their "real life" stories are like the crash to a caffeine high. They also cause the running time to top out at a needless three hours. Honestly, when the intermission comes on at the 1:45 mark, the story is such that it could have — should have ended there. Oh, well — at least it's not NASCAR.

With the exception of a top-of-the-hour sequence that slows a race down to render it as a visual ballet, reality was the name of the game for the director, as the half-hour retrospective reveals, to the point where the racing scenes are partially pure documentary.

They sure resemble that, given Blu-ray's clarity. The format's structure fails the disc in one minor aspect: On the menu screen, it's very difficult to tell which selection is highlighted. —Rod Lott


 
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