3 (January 12/05)
Because 3 is based on the life of legendary race driver Dale Earnhardt, it seems rather baffling that the film completely ignores his fatal crash at the 2001 Daytona 500 (I learned of his passing only by chance, while looking up the movie on the Internet Movie Database). It's impossible not to wonder just what screenwriter Robert Eisele was thinking in omitting this fairly pivotal detail (Earnhardt's death certainly isn't common knowledge, despite Eisele's obvious assumption that it is). And while 3 is basically entertaining - due in large part to star Barry Pepper's performance - there's no denying that the film often feels as though it's glossing over moments in Earnhardt's life that are just as important.
The film plays out like a standard biopic, tracking Earnhardt's life from his rough childhood through to his successes as a Nascar driver. His father, Ralph (played by J.K. Simmons), an amateur driver, instills young Dale with a realistic perspective of how tough the sport can be. Nevertheless, Dale (played as a teen and an adult by Pepper) devotes himself entirely to succeeding as a Nascar driver - eventually alienating two wives in the process.
3's been directed by Russell Mulcahy, a filmmaker known for imbuing his movies with wildly over-the-top instances of style - even if said movies don't necessary warrant such moments. Mulcahy keeps himself in check here, though, allowing things to play out in a relatively straight-forward manner (and, as a result, the film has the feel of a made-for-television production). Still, the racing sequences are admittedly very well done and seem to effectively capture the real danger that exists within the world of Nascar (a sport that allows drivers to actually crash into one another).
There's an unmistakable current of melodrama running through the film, something that's particularly noticeable within the relationships involving Earnhardt and the various women in his life (including his mother). This sort of simplistic approach is established early on with Earnhardt's father, who always seems to have a Yoda-like nugget primed and ready to go. Not surprisingly, Simmons is actually quite good in the role, so it's disappointing to note that he's essentially trapped within the confines of a fairly one-dimensional character. Pepper, fortunately, doesn't suffer the same fate, delivering a performance that's expected complex and nuanced.
In the end, it's racing fans that'll undoubtedly get the most out of 3 - though the movie does provide enough of a basic understanding of what Dale Earnhardt was all about to warrant a mild recommendation.