Starring: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Shanice Banton, Jeremy Irons, Carice van Houten, Barnaby Metschurat
Rated PG-13 for Thematic Elements and Language
The title "Race" is a plainly obvious double meaning on the film's conflict: a track race and racial tension. Bet you didn't see that one coming, did you? And the film as a whole is written with that amount of depth: it wants to be deep and substantial, but consistently underestimates the intelligence of the audience. This isn't a bad movie, just a hopelessly routine one.
Director Stephen Hopkins (never one to make movies of substantial quality) seems more interested in dotting every t and crossing every i than creating three-dimensional characters or telling a compelling (or coherent) story. The list of clichés he employs reads like a list of greatest hits from Sports Movie 101. Let's count them down, shall we?
-Period piece setting complete with sepia tone: check
-Talented but naïve champion-to-be who comes from the wrong side of the tracks: check
-Hard drinking, tough as nails coach who has a secret soft side: check
-Said champion-to-be gets seduced by fame and glory and forgets who his real friends are: check
-A hero who must prove himself in the face of enemies who will do anything to see him fail: check
-Bonding with a rival: check and double check.
-A crisis of conscience between following his dream and taking a stand.
I could go on. And on. There is very little here that's unique or original. Although this is ostensibly about Olympic champion Jesse Owens (James), his character is so thinly written that he could be any generic Hollywood athletic hero. His co-stars fare even worse.
But wait! Didn't I give "Goal! The Dream Begins" a rave review even though it did the exact same thing? Yes I did. But that movie had energy and conviction. The characters may not have been original, but they had enough personality that I formed a connection with them. Plus that movie had the good sense to pick and choose which clichés to employ. "Race" uses all of them. None of them are given any room to breathe, by the way.
The performances do not help matters. Stephan James is a bland lead. bringing little in the way of depth or life to the role. Granted, he is working with a subpar screenplay, but there's no spark for me to connect with him. I could care less about his character or his dreams. Funnyman Jason Sudeikis seized the chance to achieve his goal of doing a drama, and while his performance is merely okay, he's the best thing in it. Jeremy Irons and William Hurt lend their talents in small roles, but neither appears to be trying very hard. Carice van Houten shows up in a totally thankless role as infamous documentarian Leni Riefenstahl, but she's uneven (I fault the screenplay). David Kross has a small role as Jesse's rival, and he manages to save the character from being a complete saint.
"Race" enters into dangerous waters when it deals with racism and anti-Semitism, particularly from the Third Reich, and it doesn't do so successfully. Frankly, this material is written so dumb that it's insulting. Didn't anyone involved with the production have any respect for the intelligence of the audience? That this was produced by Focus Features, known for creating movies for audiences who have grown up from their Marvel phase, is a little astounding.
This film is a cash grab, plain and simple. The filmmakers were uninterested in presenting a new perspective on an interesting figure nor were they interested in paying respect to his life. They chose a historical figure that fit into the genre they were looking to make and did the rest on autopilot.