[originally posted to Blogcritics]
In the late 1960s, a new era of motorsport began on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, the Lotus Formula One team turned its cars into rolling billboards for Gold Leaf tobacco, while in America, Mattel made a deal with drag racers Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “The Mongoose” MacEwen to promote a new line of toy cars called Hot Wheels.
Today, racing cars at almost every level are covered with advertisers’ logos – and the drivers stay in luxury hotels instead of cheap motels, and never have to worry about race promoters stiffing them for a hundred bucks. And thanks mainly to Prudhomme and MacEwen, drag racing became a pretty big deal – not F1 or NASCAR big, of course — but popular enough for huge corporate sponsors and worldwide television deals.
Snake and Mongoose tells the story of how these legendary racers became friends and business partners off the track, and dedicated rivals on it. Sadly, while the film is actually produced by the National Hot Rod Association, it probably could have used more corporate sponsorship. The filmmakers had only a limited budget, and it shows in almost every scene.
“Snake” was already one of the top drag racers in southern California when MacEwen adopted the nickname “Mongoose,” directly in response, complete with a cartoon mascot. That set the tone for their respective careers: Prudhomme would go on to become the most successful drag racer in history, while MacEwen – himself a formidable opponent on the track, and often the only man who could mount a serious challenge to Prudhomme – was a genius at marketing and promotion. The deal with Mattel was his idea, and many young boys were thrilled to find Hot Wheels Snake & Mongoose racing sets under the Christmas tree.
Mattel (represented here by a slick executive played by ER’s Noah Wyle, probably the most recognizable actor in the film) ultimately decided to move on, however, and the Prudhomme/MacEwen partnership broke up in the early ’70s. But they eventually patched things up and maintained a friendly but fierce rivalry, culminating with their legendary race at the 1978 U.S. Nationals – just days after MacEwen’s young son passed away from leukemia.
Leads Jesse Williams and Richard Blake have the charisma to play these larger-than-life characters, but they’re stuck with some truly leaden dialogue. Director Wayne Holloway uses actual drag racing footage from the period, and strangely enough, that’s the best and worst thing about the movie. There’s no effort to make the newly filmed scenes blend seamlessly with the old movies, and the constant cutting back and forth is jarring.
The movie is filled with distracting anachronisms – music, fashions and corporate logos much newer than the time period in which the scenes are set – as well. Worst of all, much the movie was obviously filmed in just one location, meant to represent drag strips all over the country. Footage of one brutal crash is immediately followed by a scene meant to show the immediate aftermath, but filmed in an area that physically looks nothing like the track where the crash occurred, with only a handful of extras instead of the massive crowd that attended the real race.
Dedicated race fans should enjoy Snake and Mongoose and its portrayal of late-sixties car culture, but the film’s deficiencies may unfortunately keep it finding a wider audience. This is a great story that deserves a better movie.
Technical notes: these engines and screeching tires sound fantastic, but the video is somewhat grainy, and some of the old racing film looks incomprehensible when formatted for a modern TV. Special features are sparse: a behind-the-scenes feature, and that’s about it.