You see it often in the postgame interview, the postmatch press conference: some of the world’s best athletes have a bit of blankness about them. Not stupidity, but simplicity. They’ve pared away everything but that which will allow them to win. Robert Redford, with his golden-boy mystery, plays that blankness well in director Michael Ritchie’s debut film, Downhill Racer. As David Chappellet, he shows up as a replacement for an injured skier on the U.S. team and wants nothing more than to win. He doesn’t want to talk, he doesn’t want to bond, he wants to succeed. (“What’s there to understand?” he asks his coach, played by Gene Hackman. “I’m here because I ski, and I ski fast. That’s all there is to it.”) Which makes him the perfect athlete, no matter what idealized concepts of sportsmanship or teamwork outsiders may try to place on the competitor.
For many, the most intense cinematic skiing sequences they’ve ever seen have been limited to James Bond movies. Downhill Racer buries them all with its zooming, twisting POV shots of a skier racing down the slopes — at some points, the camera appears to be mounted on Chappellet’s chest. Thrills aside, the movie is blessedly unsentimental. Much like Redford’s The Candidate (in which he teams up once again with Ritchie), Downhill Racer ends on a note of dissatisfaction-tinged victory. All right, we’ve won. Now what?