Wednesday 14 June 2023

On the Edge (1986)

Director: Rob Nilsson Writer: Rob Nilsson Stars: Bruce Dern, Pam Grier, Bill Bailey, Jim Haynie and John Marley

Index: The First Thirty.

This is a fantastic film for star Bruce Dern, a passion project that he worked for a deferred salary. It gave him opportunity to showcase what he can do as an actor and as a runner, as it takes a fictionalised look at a real race, the Dipsea Race in California, translated here into the Cielo-Sea race that’s about twice as long.

The Dipsea is a crosscountry trail race that’s been held almost every year since 1905, from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach. It’s seven and a half miles but they include a mountain, Mount Tamalpais, which means 2,200 feet up, in one section via 688 steps called Dipsea Trail Stairs, and 2,200 feet back down again. That’s tough.

And Bruce Dern, as a runner, ran the Dipsea in 1974. In fact, he apparently ran so regularly that he put in between 2,500 and 4,000 miles a year from the ages of 28 to 70. Clearly he was well cast for this movie, because most of the best parts are him running.

There is a story here that’s wrapped around the running, which ties to his character, Wes Holman, having been suspended from the race a couple of decades earlier. Apparently he tried to organise to legalise payments, in the form of airline tickets, to amateur athletes. It seems to be a detail of immense importance to the runners themselves, but not to the viewers who either don’t understand the importance of it or really don’t care. It’s a MacGuffin.

It’s important here because Holman wants to run the Dipsea again, but he’s barred from registering. After trying a few things, he ends up running anyway as an unregistered runner, which is why he doesn’t sport a number in the poster, and has to face increasingly desperate attempts by the organisers to grab him off the course. The heartwarming aspect to the film is that the runners are all on his side, so they’re happy to help him continue and finish.

What’s weird about the film is that it’s a real mixed bag, so much so that I may well want to watch this again but, if I do, I’m very likely to fast forward over a bunch of it.

The best parts are truly excellent and have to do with the running, meaning both the race itself, which is cleverly shot, and the runners who take part, most obviously Holman.

The former is achieved by impressive work from debut cinematographer, Stefan Czapsky, having Steadicams on motorbikes, dollies and pickup trucks, some shots taken by the second unit director running behind the action with a camera under his arm. Czapsky built on this to land bigger gigs: Last Exit to Brooklyn, Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns for a start.

The latter is writer/director Rob Nilsson’s success in channelling the old loneliness of the long distance runner mood so capably that we almost find ourselves in the zone while sitting on our couches. Some of that is the focus of an impressive isolation, but much of it has to do with Dern, a natural outsider, as his years in biker movies proved, who believably exists in his own bubble here.

The worst parts have no real business being in the movie and, sad to say, Pam Grier’s part is one of them. It’s not that she’s bad, because she does everything she needs to do here. It’s that there’s no reason for her character to be in the film and an excellent one for her not to be. In fact her part was entirely cut from the theatrical release and restored for VHS. I don’t believe it’s been released on DVD.

She’s literally a distraction. The point of the film is that Holman is getting old, supposedly 44 and looking more than that, with a greying beard, and he has to focus and work hard to be a contender in a race he ran twenty years ago. Elmo, his old trainer, tells him what he needs to do and he ignores it, even though he sought him out to begin with. And, every so often, he feels the need to take a break and find Cora.

She’s an aerobics teacher but every moment she isn’t in long shot leading her class, she’s in a dimly lit scene with Holman, usually against a background of fish tanks for some reason, so she can take off her clothes and give him that release. And then she’s gone again. That’s it.

And, while it’s always good to see Pam Grier in a movie, clothed or not, I have to wonder if the theatrical release is better for her absence. Frankly, it ought to be. Without Cora, Holman can concentrate on his training and if he does that, we can concentrate on it too and get into that zone with him and that’s what it ought to be about: Holman running and us running all the way with him, sans the actual exercise.

When he’s not distracted, Dern handles this really well, especially early on before he gets some serious training in. I thought he looked older here than he did in The ’Burbs and that came out three years later while this was shot three years earlier. He’s easily the best thing about the movie. Sadly, Pam, through no fault of her own, is the worst.

In between the best and the worst parts are a few subplots that ought to be there, I guess, but kind of get in the way too.

The best of them is the MacGuffin about the payments because that gets a payoff, pun not intended, in the race itself, which is the entire third act. The time-honoured angle of training is less successful but has to be done in every sports movie. The problem is that it’s done in every sports movie and therefore we’ve seen it a hundred times before and there aren’t many ways to mix it up. There’s also a reconciliation angle with Holman and his dad, Flash, who’s an old curmudgeon who runs a junkyard and finds fault with everything and everyone. No wonder they fell out of touch. There’s a slight payoff to this angle but it wasn’t worth it.

For me, it’s Dern and the race. I wasn’t into the movie at all until I was and, when I felt it, I felt it hard. Overall, how successful it ends up depends on how much we care about the film as a whole being an effective parallel to the art and dedication of running. When you start out as a runner, it sucks. As you get better, it feels easier and more natural. And, once you’ve got to the top of your game, it’s what you live for.

Translating that into the film, it means that you could read up a little and learn a couple of select background details, then fast forward to the race and enjoy an incredible short film of about half an hour in length. The catch is that you’d be enjoying the result without doing the work and, even if the journey’s a slog, it’s an integral part of the whole. Here, the emotion of the final third is there because we watched the first hour, even if we wondered why at the time.

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