They bleed for speed

This film about the road-run­ning Dun­lops fires on all cylin­ders, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - REVIEWS -

ROAD ★★★★ Di­rected by Michael He­witt, Der­mot Lav­ery. Nar­rated by Liam Nee­son PG cert, 101 min Ev­ery now and then, a sports doc­u­men­tary comes along that draws in even those nor­mally re­duced to boils and bore­dom by the rel­e­vant ac­tiv­ity. Senna man­aged that feat with For­mula 1. The up­com­ing Red Army, a sur­prise hit at Cannes, does the busi­ness for Soviet ice hockey. All of which is by way of ex­plain­ing that Road, a film about two gen­er­a­tions of North­ern Ir­ish mo­tor­bike racers, is not just for fans of two-wheeled mayhem.

En­thu­si­asts will find plenty to savour. But, fea­tur­ing a rich brown voiceover by Liam Nee­son and sick­en­ing on-bike footage, Road tells ter­ri­ble, ex­cit­ing, tragic sto­ries that fairly rat­tle the spine.

Though Joey Dun­lop’s name will be fa­mil­iar to most pun­ters, only the com­mit­ted will have much no­tion of his achieve­ments. Raised in Bal­ly­money, Co Antrim, the charis­matic rider se­cured five For­mula 1 ti­tles at the Isle of Man TT and won the Ul­ster Grand Prix on 24 oc­ca­sions. Road also re­veals that, in char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally un­showy fash­ion, Dun­lop worked hard to sup­port Ro­ma­nian or­phans fol­low­ing the col­lapse of the Ceaus­escu regime. In 2000, he died in a crash at a race in Es­to­nia.

Mean­while, Dun­lop’s younger brother Robert set about es­tab­lish­ing his own ca­reer. Nei­ther ap­palling in­juries nor Joey’s death could dis­suade Robert from pur­su­ing those nag­ging am­bi­tions. He even­tu­ally per­ished at the North West 200 in 2008. His two sons, Michael and Wil­liam, con­tinue the tra­di­tion. Just last week, the lat­ter suf­fered two breaks to his fibula at this year’s TT.

The film be­gins by of­fer­ing some as­ton­ish­ing sta­tis­tics con­cern­ing the dan­gers of road rac­ing, then goes on to in­vite its sub­jects chanc- es to ex­plain their mo­ti­va­tions. Ul­ster­men from heel to scalp, none of them opens up quite enough to make sense of the ap­par­ent death wish. But it re­mains clear that the dan­ger is part of the buzz. Dizzy­ing footage taken from (it seems) the han­dle­bars of hurtling mo­tor­bikes pushes home the point. We end up with a film that is prop­erly – maybe de­lib­er­ately – equiv­o­cal about the sport at its heart. You can see it as a cel­e­bra­tion; you can view it as a de­pic­tion of mad­ness in ac­tion.

To the un­in­volved, only ad­dic­tion can make sense of the Dun­lops’ con­tin­u­ing de­vo­tion to an ac­tiv­ity that pos­i­tively in­vites catas­tro­phe. Aside from other great sport­ing doc­u­men­taries, one thinks of a film like McCullin, in which leg­endary pho­tog­ra­pher Don McCullin talked about his need to cover the most dan­ger­ous war zones.

Quite prop­erly, the in­ter­views with Joey and Robert’s mother al­low her to ex­press grief with dig­nity, but don’t press her into any fur­ther emo­tional stress. The voiceover is dra­matic with­out ever be­com­ing por­ten­tous or man­nered. Di­rec­tors Michael He­witt and Der­mot Lav­ery are masters of bal­ance.

It is, per­haps, worth not­ing what’s miss­ing from Road. Re­gret­tably, it doesn’t in­ves­ti­gate why Ul­ster people are so dis­pro­por­tion­ately ob­sessed with mo­tor sports. Is it some­thing to do with the fa­tal­is­tic Nordic tem­per­a­ment? Only Fin­land com­petes with the North in its per­capita enthusiasm for cars and bikes. So there may be some­thing in that.

More in­ter­est­ingly, de­spite fol­low­ing the Dun­lop story from the mid-1970s to the present, Road feels no need to ad­dress the Trou­bles and the way in which the broth­ers drew sup­port from “both com­mu­ni­ties”. The ab­sence is most grat­i­fy­ing. This is a film about some­thing else.

In a slow, foot­ball-dam­aged week for films, we have, at least, one gem to savour.

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