It isn't every week that we get screeners of not-yet-released motion pictures FedEx'd to us at The Californian. Big-city papers usually do the honors of reviewing films.
But it's also not every week that an independent film about two legendary names in racing is released, as is the case with "Snake & Mongoo$e," part of which was shot last year at Famoso Raceway. And so after Californian motorsports guru Mike Griffith turned down the opportunity to watch and write about the movie, my editor went down the list of racing junkies until she got to me. I happily accepted the assignment since I love racing and have no ego about being No. 8 on her list.
The film is based on the story of Don "The Snake" Prudhomme and Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen. I should mention right off the bat that these two guys played a significant role in my young life. If you were a kid in the '70s, you were well aware of the greatest rivalry in motorsports, even if you weren't aware that it was mostly staged. Back then, you had to pick a side in this epic battle. We were a McEwen family -- at least I think we were. I do seem to recall expounding to kids at school how mongooses (mongeese?) were faster than snakes.
The rivalry was the biggest thing in drag racing. Ever. And now, in "Snake & Mongoo$e," we have the whole story about these drag-racing giants, how they started, how they rose to fame, and how they pulled drag racing into the corporate world.
In the early days of professional drag racing, Prudhomme and McEwen were just a couple of guys struggling to get by until one fateful day when McEwen got the brilliant idea that the two should start racing each other full time at drag strips across the country. People ate it up. Their races became the stuff of legend.
Then came the corporate part of the story. They convinced toy giant Mattel to get on board as a way of marketing their new line of toy cars called Hot Wheels. (Maybe you've heard of them.) The cars were a huge hit, and the Snake and Mongoose cars and track sets are highly sought after to this day. That Mattel deal is still looked upon as one of the biggest early examples of major corporate sponsorship. This movie does a great job of telling that story, and is a heart-felt valentine to racing fans.
But what about everyone else?
"Snake & Mongoo$e" has its charms, some of which comes courtesy of the cast. Though there are no A-list actors, several of the cast members have worked with A-list actors : Tim Blake Nelson has a prominent role, and he was in "O' Brother, Where Art Thou?"; the actor who plays Prudhomme is the guy from "Grey's Anatomy" who isn't Patrick Dempsey (Jesse Williams); Noah Wyle from "ER" and "Falling Skies" plays the head of Mattel. And coming off their instant classic, "Sharknado," John Heard -- of "Home Alone" fame -- reteams with Ian Ziering. But since Ziering looks like he's aged about 157 years from his "90210" heyday, his marquee value is pretty questionable.
It's not that the actors aren't good, though some aren't. What makes the movie a marginal choice for non-racing audiences is the same problem that sinks most movies, big and small: a weak script. The screenwriters have characters spitting out terminology that no one in the pits would ever use. I understand the reason, since they want to make sure that regular folks get it, but regular folks aren't going to see this movie anyway, so why compromise authenticity?
Quibbles aside, racing fans who were around from the late '60s on -- the real audience for "Snake & Mongoo$e" -- are going to see it. And they should. Because even with its deficits, those fans will appreciate the race scenes, which contain lots of actual footage. The names and places are all accurate, except for Bakersfield, which gets mentioned a lot. I'm pretty sure that racers from around the country call it Bakersfield, but Famoso Raceway lies in the 93250 ZIP code, which puts it in McFarland or maybe Wasco. I'll let them fight it out, but it's not Bakersfield.
This movie is no "Citizen Kane," but it isn't supposed to be. It's a dandy history lesson for anybody who wants to know more about the racing scene of the era. It's got grainy vintage video pasted over modern film, and no shortage of wooden acting. But if you're a race fan anywhere near my age, man is it fun to watch. Seeing all those stickers on the cars, the same ones we stuck to our binders and bedroom windows, is plenty cool. All the period-correct cars are great to gawk at too. Mix in a bunch of '70s hairdos and clothes, and you can't help but enjoy this film.
But if you're going to see it, you better go. Ron Howard's highly anticipated "Rush" about Formula One champ Niki Lauda is roaring up to the starting line. Once it's released, it will lap this little film, no matter how much heart it has.