'Bennett's War': Film Review
Michael Roark plays a soldier who returns to motorcycle racing in Alex Ranarivelo's heartland sports film.
A wholesomely formulaic sports picture rooting its comeback narrative in themes of military duty, Alex Ranarivelo's Bennett's War watches as a onetime motocross star returns to the track despite being wounded during service in Afghanistan. A small role for singer Trace Adkins may help with some demographics at the box office, but this programmer will only really be enjoyed by those with a healthy appetite for race footage and an uncomplicated "you can do it" attitude.
Michael Roark plays Marshall Bennett, who quit professional motorcycle racing so he could join an Army Motorcycle Unit overseas. Intro footage finds him staging a very unlikely sniper takedown with a fellow soldier before the two men get ambushed; an improvised explosive device leaves Bennett hobbled, told he can no longer ride. He's given a medical discharge and sent home, where his wife Sophie (Allison Paige) has just given birth to their son.
Barely getting by, the couple live with Marshall's father Cal (Adkins) on his farm while Sophie attends veterinary school. Sophie frets over anything Marshall does that might put his injured foot at risk — he's one bad fall away from never walking again, doctors say — and has made it clear she'll leave him if he's ever stupid enough to get on a bike again. But this is a Father Knows Best world, and on the night Marshall discovers some feeling has returned to his wounded limb, it barely takes him five minutes to tune up his old cycle and tear off into the darkened fields.
Marshall has been working as a mechanic for his old friend Cyrus (Ali Afshar, whose role as producer probably made it hard to argue there might be better actors for the part). Cyrus' motor-sports shop is a gathering spot for racers, and, one afternoon, ominous music cues signal the arrival of a racing crew that might as well be wearing Cobra Kai gear. Up-and-coming riders Chris and Kurt Walker (Hunter Clowdus and Brando Eaton) are the stars of a team sponsored by Tony Panterra, a cocky old dude with a dyed-black fauxhawk. (Panterra is a real-life racer who, at least where Google's concerned, is vastly more famous for fathering a woman who twerks on the internet.)
Right around the time we learn that Cal may soon lose the farm if he can't raise five grand, Marshall and Cyrus find themselves at a dirt track where an impromptu race is being held: The $4,000 prize is all it takes to make this family man risk divorce, and of course the movie feels he's right to do it. Whether the audience will believe his leg can withstand the punishment of the race is another matter.
What follows is a very straightforward comeback tale, with "sweep the leg"-style poor sportsmanship the only real obstacle Marshall has to overcome. Ample POV footage during long race sequences helps distract from the fact that their staging often keeps us from really feeling where racers are in relation to each other — and that Ranarivelo's toolkit for upping drama in these scenes consists mostly of repeated shots of Marshall's eyes, his steely gaze mostly obscured by racing goggles. Performances are generally competent, but nobody in the cast has the kind of presence needed to overcome Ranarivelo's by-the-numbers dialogue.
Production company: ESX Entertainment
Distributor: Forrest Films
Cast: Michael Roark, Trace Adkins, Allison Paige, Ali Afshar, Tony Panterra, Hunter Clowdus, Brando Eaton, Michael King
Director-screenwriter: Alex Ranarivelo
Producers: Ali Afshar, Christina Moore
Executive producer: Forrest Lucas
Director of photography: Reuben Steinberg
Production designer: Rob Riutta
Costume designer: Elizabeth Jett
Editor: Brett Hedlund
Composer: Jamie Christopherson
Casting director: Beverly Holloway
Rated PG-13, 94 minutes