I Superbiker – The Showdown
Details: (PG), 100 mins, In Cinemas 10 May 2012, United Kingdom, English
Synopsis: The story of the 2011 British Superbike (BSB) season, which culminated in arguably the most exciting motorcycle race of all time. A new format for 2011 left only six riders competing for the title in a series of dramatic showdowns. Among the six were Australian bad boy Josh Brookes and British hero Tommy Hill, who spectacularly lost the title in 2010 due to one small error.
An insider's look into the British Superbike championship.
The poster for I, Superbiker – The Showdown seems like a neat pun on superhero marketing hard-sells. Six blokes are lined up across the poster frame in their bike racing togs all looking lean, hard, and stubbled. They appear super confident and ready for anything. A couple are smirking (probably since it’s all a bit silly). But their skills are no joke.
The six men are, of course, superbike racers. For the uninitiated, superbike racing is not like Formula One on two wheels; the participants race modified production bikes. It’s the difference between a bike built for racing, rather than a machine manufactured for mass consumption. That’s part of the thrill for fans. With superbike racing, street riders go to see their favorite bike brand – just like the one they actually own or covert – and watch as it gets put through the works by talented professionals, who can throw, say, a 1200cc machine around a twisty track, and compete with equally talented riders without killing themselves in the process. “Their reflexes are equal to test pilots,” argues one race commentator here. I guess he’s talking about the stakes; one false move and it’s all over.
This release, which covers the climatic stages of the 2011 British Superbike championship, doesn’t emphasise the bone-cracking, death-cheating side of the action – like so many motor sport films – but it has its fair share of near-fatal encounters where riders hit the dirt or the track. In one truly shocking moment, it records an accident that brings out the terror the riders are faced with each time they climb on their machines: a rider has a fall on a hair-pin turn. He skids off the track unharmed. But his bike – given the unique physics involved – tumbles and becomes airborne, a mass of uncontrollable flying metal. It comes down to earth, only just missing another rider. If any of the men here are to be taken as typical, feelings of fear are repressed behind a wall of cool indifference and professional confidence (or arrogance, depending on one’s own bias). So I, Superbiker doesn’t get into any nasty, complex emotions. The risks are taken for granted. Winning is what counts.
This program – it’s not really a ‘movie’ in the conventional sense – is more like an edited for laughs ‘n’ gasps version of high-end pay TV sports coverage. It’s very much an insider’s piece. I hate it when critics say a movie is ‘for fans’ – it sounds condescending. But in this case, it’s a description that’s apt.
What I mean is that it does not seem constructed for outsiders or a general audience; it eschews conventional doco values. There’s no attempt to sum-up the history of superbike championship from its origins, say. And as for sentimentalising and offering a rounded portrait of its subjects, forget it. We know these guys as racers who live in the moment. They talk about their pressures and their aspirations. But the interviews here are TV sports-lite; no intimacy, but a lot of bravado and ‘personal best’ angst.
The drama of the piece focuses on what happened at last year’s superbike championship in the UK. The rules and regulations for the ‘Showdown’ – a new event to the championship – are explained at the beginning of the film. But even after repeated viewings, I’m still fuzzy on the details, though I gather the riders compete on a point system. Still, I think I did get the point of the new system; it seems designed for maximum suspense, impact and excitement. It means that the champion won’t ultimately be decided until the very last lap of the last race. And that’s what happens here; the winner manages to succeed by 6/1000th of a second.
The showdown – if I understand it – pits the top six contenders, based on their points, in a series of races. The points that they’ve accumulated over the season are rendered irrelevant. In the showdown system, the top six all have an equal chance.
The contenders are Shane Byrne, who says often and on camera that he would have been champ in a ‘real championship’ if it weren’t for the showdown. By contrast, there’s the reserved and relatively modest Tommy Hill, like Byrne, an Englishman. There’s also the quiet Ryuichi Riyonari from Japan (who is referred to here as ‘inscrutable’), who held the championship title the year before, Michael Laverty from Northern Ireland, the mild mannered and soft spoken John Hopkins from the USA, and Australian Josh Brookes.
The program uses on-screen cards to tell the viewer where we are in a countdown to the climax. That’s good because all the races are shot in an identical fashion. The emotional beats come from cutaways to the pits where anxious wives, girlfriends, managers and mechanics watch the action on TV monitors.
As a record of a sports event, it’s a lean, no-nonsense portrait. I wonder whether director Mark Sloper plans to follow it up with something deeper and more intimate, because based on this, the superbike world is a fascinating sub-culture – full of posing, heartache, macho glamour and money – and everyone here just seems to take its mystique for granted.
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