`The Flying Scotsman' never picks up speed

Bicycle champion's by-the-numbers story

review c

May 04, 2007|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Graeme Obree was a champion bicycler who, by all accounts, rarely took the easy way out. Too bad this movie version of his life doesn't follow suit.

The Flying Scotsman paints Obree as a guy dealing with one big-time crisis after another. Nothing wrong with that, of course; people have been battling adversity since the days of Job. But Obree's trials line up a little too neatly; no sooner does he dispense with one than another rears its ugly head. The result seems less of a life story than a trite movie-of-the-week emphasizing resiliency, resourcefulness and risk-taking -- a paint-by-numbers approach to inspiration.

After an initial setup where young Graeme is given a bike so that he can flee the school hooligans -- I'm not sure how it works in Scotland, but at my school, the toughs would have simply destroyed the bike while its owner was in class, then pummeled him even harder -- we cut to a grown Obree (Jonny Lee Miller), for whom bikes and biking have become an obsession. Unfortunately, it's proven a not-so-profitable obsession, as he's about to close the bike shop he's been operating for the past few years.

As fate would have it -- and doesn't fate always have it, in movies like this? -- Obree meets another obsessed bicyclist, Malky (Billy Boyd, Pippin from The Lord of the Rings). The two become best buds and dream of making it big on the biking circuit. Their goal: Set the record for longest distance covered in an hour. Obree sets to work designing the perfect bike and training, while Malky goes out in search of sponsors.

The movie can be divided into three distinct parts, each providing a demon that Obree must smite. Frustrated by a lack of money, Obree despairs of ever coming up with a working design, until inspiration arrives in the guise of the family clothes dryer. In true underdog style, Obree must then contend with the elders of the ruling World Cycling Federation, who don't like him or his methods (Steven Berkoff gets to glower and speak in clipped German as the WCF's despotic head, Ernst Hagemann).

Finally, Obree must wrestle with mental problems (the film dips unsteadily into A Beautiful Mind territory here), which only his minister friend, played by the ever-reliable Brian Cox, seems able to mitigate.

The Flying Scotsman never makes us feel greatly for Obree, primarily because neither the script, by John Brown, Declan Hughes and Simon Rose, nor the direction by U.K. television veteran Douglas Mackinnon, ever brings him into focus. Obree seems to succeed not through hard work, but as a matter of course. By the film's end, we're impressed with Obree for what he did, which is hardly as compelling as being impressed by how he did it.


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