Breaking Away

This review was originally written as part of my road trip series for French Toast Sunday.

In Bloomington, Indiana, four aimless teenagers, fresh from leaving school for good, spend their summer days hanging out at the local quarry – where their fathers all used to work – and terrorising the students at the local university. One of the four, Dennis Christopher’s Dave, has recently become obsessed with cycling, specifically the Italian team, who are due to visit Bloomington that year. Dave aims to compete against them in a race, and also plans to take part in the university’s annual cycling event, which has recently extended its rules to include a team from the local town. Also, Dave meets a girl, and inexplicably pretends to be Italian in order to woo her.

Breaking Away is a movie that, before watching it, the only thing I knew about it was it was set in Indiana, and that was only discovered in preparation for this viewing. It’s a film which appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – something I’m running through on my own site – but I can’t for the life of me understand why. Granted, there’s some very questionable entries on that list, but this feels like an odd choice because, for the most part, it’s relatively unremarkable. That’s not to say it’s necessarily a bad film – in many respects it’s actually rather good – it simply adheres to pretty much every cliché within the sub-genres of underdog sports movies and coming-of-age-in-a-small-town stories.

Let’s begin with our four main characters. Each one is a tried-and-tested stereotype. First up there’s Mike (Dennis Quaid), the former high school quarterback and unspecified leader of the pack. He’s very much an alpha male, easily aggravated and with a severe grudge against the local college kids, over whom he used to command respect back in school, but now is humiliated by. All four of our heroes are unemployed, and Mike thinks they should remain so until they can find a job that will accept them all. Next is Cyril (Daniel Stern), the team’s good natured but a little dim comic relief. He’s fully aware that the life ahead of him doesn’t contain greatness, but he’s got a good heart and always helps his friends. Thirdly we have Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley), the poorest of the four and the only one with a steady relationship. Moocher is very sensitive about his diminutive height and rat-like appearance, which when insulted regularly leads to outbursts of anger and violence. Finally there’s our lead, Dave (Dennis Christopher). Dave is quite an interesting character, given his proclivity towards Italian culture – he’s even learned the language, though his accent needs a lot of work – which leads to a problematic relationship with his xenophobic father (Paul Dooley). Unfortunately, despite Dave being the most interesting of the three, and having the most things happen to him throughout the film, I feel it would have been improved immeasurably had the focus not been solely upon his shoulders. Almost every event we witness is through Dave’s eyes, meaning the other three are sidelined, regardless of how much time we want to spend with them. Granted, my willingness to spend more time with the likes of Cyril and Moocher may be somewhat related to my fondness for the actors playing them – I’ve been a big Daniel Stern fan since the first time I saw him get hit in the face with a brick four times in a row in Home Alone 2 – but I just think this would have been a better story had it not been all about Dave. Even when one of the guys gets married we only see it because Dave is cycling past at the time.
Ah yes, the cycling. This is where I’m more drawn to the film. By and large I’m not a fan of sports movies, simply because I’m not a fan of sports in terms of playing them, watching them or really anything about them. What I am a fan of, however, is cycling. It’s my favorite method of transport, and I take great interest in it when it appears in movies. Fortunately, this film has a lot of cycling in it, so as sports movies go this one automatically becomes my favorite (with the possible exception of Dodgeball, because I will never get tired of seeing Justin Long get hit in the face with a wrench). What this led to, however, was me starting to hate the character of Dave. He may be really good at cycling very fast, but what he’s utterly hideous at is general road safety, and paying any kind of heed or concern to his fellow road users. The guy’s a menace; running red lights on busy intersections, cycling at night with no lights or luminous clothing, and generally being a hazard to all those around him. He’s not quite on a level with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Wiley from Premium Rush, who I spent 90 minutes hoping someone would smear onto a concrete surface, but it got pretty close. Dave was a little bit more sympathetic – he had a character, after all (I have a lot of issues with Premium Rush) – so at one point I was genuinely concerned as to his well being. During his cycling training, he allies himself with a lorry driver, who notifies Dave with what speed they are travelling at. This is not clear when the scene begins, and every time the driver stuck his arm out the window to indicate the speed, I thought he was indicating without seeing Dave, and was about to plough through him, his bike and all his internal organs. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen, as that would have put something of a damper on the rest of the movie.

I appreciated the lack of a definitive villain. Yes, there’s the dickish jock (Hart Bochner) from the university, who also happens to be the boyfriend of Katherine (Robyn Douglass), the girl Dave has recently fallen in love with, and the Cinzano Italian cycling team turn out to be a bunch of the biggest bastards committed to film (seriously, these guys infuriated me to a point I didn’t know was possible) but the real antagonist to overcome was the prejudice against Dave’s team – known as the Cutters – and that prejudice came from both other people and themselves. Also, Dave’s relationship with his father was layered and believable. His father is annoyed that Dave isn’t going through life in the same way he did when he was young – getting a job at the quarry and working every day until he’s exhausted – but also wants his son to end up with a better life than he has. It’s a complete contradiction – Dave is also apparently too stupid for university, but too lazy to get a job – and it leads to a fully rounded character, and a highlight of the film.

All in all I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, pretty much everything seen here has been done before and since, potentially hundreds of times, but I don’t know if it’s ever been done this well.

Choose Film 7/10

3 thoughts on “Breaking Away

  1. You really spent time worrying about the cycling rules of the road and courtesy? That’s like a lawyer watching a courtroom drama and bitching about the way questions are being asked in the movie courtroom. It’s a coming of age story with the underdog sports element in the background. I do know what you mean about the other guys getting the short shrift, but the story is about Dave figuring out who he wants to be and trying on different persona’s. Barbara Harris and Paul Dooley were great. I think you took the Dad’s bitching about the way he worked a bit too literally. It’s clear in most of the film that his life is not what he wants for Dave, he just wants Dave to get a real life, which is what he is putting off.You identify with the cyclist, I identify with the kid who isn’t sure where he fits.

    • I didn’t mean to get caught up in the cycling, but I think it’s more like a lawyer getting annoyed watching a courtroom drama if the lead, hero lawyer uses underhand tactics to win. Anyway.

      I agree, Harris and Dooley were excellent, possibly the best part of the film.

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