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DVD Hell on Wheels Well Worth the Ride

Review by Jim Joyce 

This shorter review of the DVD appears on Amazon.com. Click here to read longer review.

(Hell on Wheels, a film by Pepe Danquart, 123 minutes, November 2005, in German with English subtitles.)  

Lance Armstrong's unforgettable speech to the world press gathered on the eve of the 2003 Tour de France sets this mystical, magical masterpiece in motion.

"I show up prepared," says Armstrong, dead serious. "I show up motivated and I show up because I love it and respect it and I want to do well. Nothing means more to me than to win this event."

What follows is a sports documentary that is gorgeous and grandiose while at the same time gritty and down to earth.

This is cycling film that should be seen by anyone who considers himself a sports fan. It should be shown in phys. ed. and geography classes across America. This is the cycling film that would win the hearts and respect of people who have never watched - nor cared to watch - a professional cycling race. And this is the cycling film that allows the cycling fan to forget the drug-accusation cloud hanging over professional cycling, and reminds us just how much there is to love about "The Tour."

Rather than interviewing the racers and filming every stage of their performance, director Danquart turns on the camera, places it in the team bus and motels, and the riders themselves tell their incredible story with class and wit. We see close up the pain and humanity of the great German sprinter, Eric Zabel. While he, and to a lesser degree, teammate Rolf Aldag and Team Telekom, are the key players, equally important are the cast of thousands and the wonderful countryside and small towns that make up the Tour. Though the stunning bird's eye views of the race are beautiful and essential to understand the Tour, much of the footage is shot at ground level, making you feel you're a fan in the crowd, or a medic leaning over a fallen rider, scraped and bloodied, or a photographer lying horizontal on the asphalt, next to scores of other photographers from around the world. You, literally, are there.

Sweetening this masterwork is plenty of excellent footage of the big stars. Lance, Jan Ulrich, Ivan Basso, and especially Tyler Hamilton (and the story behind his broken collarbone) are all seen in great action shots. We also are treated to rise of T-Mobile's Alexandre "Vino" Vinokourov, of Kazakstan (no relation whatsoever to Borat).

History lovers will appreciate intermittent black and white film archives of old races alongside the fresh images and the Tour lore as told by French journalist Serge Laget, who shows no less pride in the event and his country's role in it as would John Madden of NFL football, or Bob Costas of Major League Baseball.

Another remarkable feature of the film is the music, which is apparently an original score. The cool, jazzy numbers and electric guitar solos are just incredible.

To describe any more of this film would be to rob the reader of all the unexpected treasures I discovered. I plan to watch it again and again. It's that good. (Plus I want to re-read those subtitles!).

You ought to see it. No--you have to see it.

Hell on Wheels is distributed in the United States by First Run Features.

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