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Grand Prix

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July 06, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Chris Nashawaty on 1966’s ”Grand Prix”

If NASCAR really is the most popular sport in America (and I have my doubts about that little nugget of conventional wisdom), why hasn’t Hollywood been able to crank out a racing movie that doesn’t totally blow? I mean, Tinseltown’s nothing if not savvy about exploiting an unexploited demographic. But only the most confirmed grease monkey would want to make a case for Tom Cruise’s Days of Thunder or Burt Reynolds’ Driven, or god forbid, Stroker Ace, despite the always welcome presence of Jim Nabors.

With the possible exception of 1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop, which is really more of an existential road movie than anything else, I’ve yet to meet a racing flick I wanted to love.(And I’m not holding out much hope for Will Ferrell’s Talledega Nights). All too often these movies simply use the oval as a gimmicky backdrop for the same tired old soap opera histrionics and macho lessons about trumping fear. They’ve got about as much to do with the thrill of sports as The Bad News Bears Go to Japan.

Just out in a spiffy, new two-disc 40th Anniversary Edition, John Frankenheimer’s 1966 Formula One epic Grand Prix, is different. Sort of. Yes, there’s plenty of three-hankie hooey about how even fearless drivers can’t open their hearts to strong women like Eva Marie Saint, and sure, half the cast can barely speak English, but Frankenheimer also serves up some of the coolest racing footage ever put on film. No surprise, since he’s also the guy who directed those cool-as-hell car chases in Ronin.

James Garner busts out an early prototype of his granite-jawed Rockford persona as hungry, hotheaded driver Pete Aron. He’s the kind of world-weary onscreen loner we’ve seen in a million sports movies from Robert Redford in Downhill Racer to Kevin Costner in Bull Durham. He’s also an undeniable badass. After he causes his teammate to wipe out at Monaco at the beginning of the film, he hits on the laid-up teammate’s old lady (a foxy, pre-Arrested Development Jessica Walter).

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Garner. It’s hard not to love The Great Escape and The Rockford Files. And I totally thought he deserved a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Paul Newman’s snaky bestfriend in 1998’s Twilight. But his tough guy stock took a nosedive in my book when I learned that he came out against the ”amoral” violence of Bonnie and Clyde when it came out in 1967. How weak is that?

But if you’re watching Grand Prix for Garner you’ve got it all wrong anyway. No, Grand Prix is all about its hairpin turns, screeching tires, and sweet, sweet crashes. Filming in ”Cinerama,” Frankenheimer goes to town with gorgeous slo-mo and split-screen effects, capturing the fetishistic details of the racetrack with a cool ’60s flair. By mounting a 70-millimeter camera on the hood of Garner’s cigar-shaped race car, he not only puts you inside the chassis, he makes it feel like a 150-mile-an-hour coffin. It’s a miracle of high-octane cinematography. And if you need to fast-forward through some of the more wince-inducing romantic filler to get to the next race, trust me, you have my blessing.

As for Garner, well, let’s just say that Grand Prix made me overcome my last misgivings about the man after I learned that he did his own driving in the film and even took up racing for years after the movie wrapped. Now, if we could somehow erase The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood from his resume….

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