Monday, 23 June 2014

SNAKE & MONGOOSE - Review By Greg Klymkiw

Jesse Williams & Richard Blake as SNAKE & MONGOOSE
The real-life drag racers who partnered with Mattel's HOT WHEELS
Snake & Mongoose (2013) ****
Dir. Wayne Holloway, Writers: Alan Paradise & Wayne Holloway
Starring: Jesse Williams, Richard Blake, Noah Wyle, Tim Blake Nelson, Fred Dryer

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Snake & Mongoose is a tremendously entertaining picture about the grand, glory days of drag racing. Focusing on the friendly rivalry between two of the sport's biggest stars, it's a movie's movie that comes jam-packed with all the Kraft Dinner comfort-food-styled-clichés you'd want from a racing picture yet alternately dappled with raw, rip-snorting reality. I suspect it's a picture many people will enjoy - of both sexes - but for those of us who lived through that amazing time, the movie is only going to have oodles of added resonance, but will frankly provide plenty of pure, glistening pools of unadulterated joy.

During the 70s, I seriously doubt there were any little boys in North America who:

(A.) Didn't own a few truckloads of Hot Wheels racing cars;
(B.) Didn't own several sets of Hot Wheels racetracks:
(C.) Didn't fall in love with drag racing;
(D.) and most of all, didn't know who the Snake & Mongoose were.

I was one of those little boys and I sure don't remember any kids I grew up with who weren't obsessed with any and all of the above. I remember counting myself extra lucky since my Dad was a P.R. man for a brewery at a time when promotions were the only way to market beer since advertising booze was against the law (at least in many Canadian territories). Dad sponsored a lot of sporting events and the one I loved the most was drag racing. I practically got to live at our local drag racing track one summer - not in the stands with all the suckers, but in the backstretch and at ground level, with all the manly men in T-shirts, cigarette packs tucked into their sleeves, sporting amazing sideburns and always, ALWAYS, surrounded by a ton of booze and babes: HOT BABES like the HOT WHEELS cars! It was Heaven on Earth: a cacaphonic, kaleidoscopic sensory-overload-sensation brimming to the max with the smell of fuel, burnt rubber and greasy oil, the sound of engines revving, tires squealing, staccato track announcements, babes-a-twittering, flashbulbs popping and LOUD rock n' roll on the speakers. And yeah, there were babes, too.

Have I mentioned the babes, yet? I digress. My bad.

The dazzling and promising feature length directorial debut of Wayne Holloway tells a relatively simple tale that spends twenty years in the lives of the famed California drag racers, Don "The Snake" Prudhomme (Jesse Williams) and Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen (Richard Blake). Friends and rivals since childhood, the two young men follow their dreams early in adulthood. Don is sweet, stable and loyal to his best gal while Tom is a wild man who cheats on his lovely, loving wife, drinks hard, rides hard and plays hard. He's also a whiz at self-promotion and keeps trying to convince his buddy to follow in his footsteps.

Through the two characters we experience how the early days of professional drag racing were full of unscrupulous track owners who make all the money while welching on the full prize money to the drivers. Tom combats this with promotional and sponsorship tie-ins as Don struggles along. When Tom comes up with the brilliant idea to sell themselves to the Mattel company and tie-in with the company's hugely successful Hot Wheels brand of toy race cars, Don decides to jump on board. In no time, Mattel designs toy cars to match the men's own cars and in turn, the guys design cars based upon models whipped together by the toy design team at the kiddie toy empire.

On track, the men are genuine rivals, but off track, they are the best of friends. This is part of their appeal to all the young boys - two men who remain best pals, but who also want to win. They capture the hearts and minds of kids everywhere. As they rise to the top of their game, one rises even higher and the other begins a slow plunge. It's a standard show business trope in narratives of this kind, but it also happens to be rooted in fact and generates a great deal of dramatic conflict throughout the proceedings. The film also focuses on the domestic lives of the men, adding a human element to the picture that eventually trumps a great deal of the macho shenanigans (without leaving them too far behind). There's an especially harrowing subplot involving Tom's leukaemia-stricken son which, goddamn it, moistened my eyes on more than a few occasions and most notably during a "Win one for the Gipper" conversation twixt father and dying son.

What jettisons Snake & Mongoose into a special place amongst racing pictures is how the clearly talented director Holloway captures period detail by expertly mixing straight-up dramatic recreations (chock-full of superb period detail) with absolutely stunning genuine stock/newsreel footage of the back-stretch at the track as well as during the thrilling races themselves. This is expertly bounced about to deliver a seamless tone that keeps our attention glued to the screen.

The film has a gorgeous sun-dappled look, but in the heat of race days, it's especially evocative in terms of the gorgeous grain dancing on-screen from the stock footage and the carefully filtered and beautifully lit dramatic footage that captures the blazing heat and dust of the track and its backstretch. In addition to eliciting terrific performances from the entire cast (especially its two leads and a wonderful supporting turn from the great Fred Dryer), director Holloway displays a vivid and clear voice as a filmmaker who has the kind of gifts that will, no doubt, deliver even more terrific pictures. The movie is jam-packed with a clever, varied palette of technique, but it's also got a ton or two of real heart.

Snake & Mongoose is up there with the best racing pictures. In fact, I'm willing to declare it might be the best of them all.

Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada (along with their U.S. counterpart) has released a stunningly transferred Blu-Ray release which is seldom less-than perfect. Its only flaw is a meagre, short and disappointing added behind-the-scenes feature which feels more like a promo reel. Most egregiously, it features interviews with everyone but the film's clearly gifted director. Whassup wit' 'dat? The movie, however, is more than worth owning in spite of this, especially for racing fans and 10-year-old boys of ALL ages. Feel free to order the film from the Amazon links below, and in so doing, supporting the ongoing maintenance of The Film Corner.


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