Movie review by Richard Parks
Photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz
There is nothing subtle about the movie SNAKE & MONGOOSE. It is a movie much like the sport of drag racing itself; direct and to the point. Nuance is not going to show through in this loud, roaring and thunderous depiction of two men, friends and competitors, who are driven by inner demons to excel at a sport both dangerous and grand. There are flaws here and there and moments when the audience wonders at the plot due to the fast pacing of the film. Even seasoned drag racers, who were there and knew the history of the events, races, thrills, chills, spills, heartbreak and ecstasy can find themselves trying to catch up with the action. The reason is that the director, Wayne Holloway, has a great amount of facts to present in telling the story. Alan Paradise, the writer, provided a massive amount of data for us to absorb in a very short period of time from 1958 to 1978. You can see the love that Paradise has for the characters in the film. I know many of them and they are remarkable people.
SNAKE & MONGOOSE is a true story based on the lives of Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen, young men who loved the young sport of drag racing and, through their efforts, helped that sport to grow and to prosper. Prudhomme and McEwen are contradictions; both friends and competitors, both rivals and teammates. They were both impressive drag racers and also formidable businessmen. Together they helped to develop the concept of sponsorship deals with Mattel and Hot Wheels, the Army, the Navy, and many other corporations. They began their racing careers when prize and appearance money, trophies and speed equipment was all that racers could hope for. Along with men like Kenny Bernstein, the two friends helped to bring in huge sponsorship contracts that changed the sport of drag racing forever. The Hot Wheels contract with Mattel was a major coup and put money into the two race teams, allowing them to excel at race tracks around the country. This deal also paved the way for other businessmen to see how important it was to enter the world of drag racing in order to market their products.
What makes SNAKE & MONGOOSE sizzle is the broad scope and detail of the lives of Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen. Their personal and family life is a major component of the movie. In some ways, it is these personal moments that pack the most wallop. I enjoyed the old racing footage, trying to remember all the people in these clips, the events, and the crashes, which seemed to speed along almost as fast as the movie itself. It was the quiet moments, when the wives and families anguished over their loneliness as the race car drivers were on the road and away from home that resonated the most with me. Ashley Hinshaw as Lynn Prudhomme and Kim Shaw as Judy McEwen were absolutely wonderful and beautiful in their roles as wives, wishing for stability and children in a sport that is brutally hard on families. There were standout performances by a number of women in the film. Women are often overlooked in racing films. Often they are little more than eye candy or fluff, but the producer, Robin Broidy, wanted to show the effects on the family as well.
There were notable supporting roles as well. Noah Wyle portrayed Art Spear at Mattel with just the right feeling of a man committed to sales, infatuated by the project and yet able to jettison the drag racers when the time came to do so. He was neither evil nor good, and Wyle held his own against the two stars. Fred Dryer as the tough and no-nonsense Ed Donovan, crew chief for McEwen, was born to play this role. Since the drag racing world is full of colorful crew chiefs with stories of their own to tell, Dryer should have a long and full plate of movie roles if more racing stories end up in production. Leonardo Nam was excellent as the soft-spoken, yet intense Roland Leong, the owner of the Hawaiian dragster that propelled Prudhomme to victory at the NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis. Julie Mond was wonderful as Wendy, a young girl smitten with McEwen and the excitement of being with a successful racer. Her scene of rejection still stands out in my mind. Some of the lesser roles and cameo appearances were well done, but some were confusing. I’m not sure what the role of John Heard or Alexis DeJoria was intended to be, since they were so short. Other cameo roles are definitely meant for the in-the-know drag racer who can point out to their friends something that the general moviegoer is not going to understand.
The director managed to get a number of drag racers into the film, sometimes causing the crowd to roar with delight and sometimes confusing us as to the intent. The real Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen made guest appearances as did Alexis DeJoria, Ron Capps and Roland Leong. I would have liked to have seen more of them in this movie. Many of the original drag strips have been closed down or altered. The movie showed buildings, fences and other objects not in the old screen footage from the past. There were time-correct props, such as glasses, household furniture and clothing that were spot-on and at other times there were articles that were incorrect for the time period. These are technicalities that I don’t consider mistakes by the director, nor do they detract from the essence of the film. The racing sequences from old film footage were spectacular, loud and nice to relive once again, and the stunt drivers did an excellent job of staging the racing in the movie.
It is the two actors in the lead role that finally determined whether this movie is a success or not. Jesse Williams played the role of Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Richard Blake was Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen. I’ll leave the Snake and Mongoose appellations for movie viewers to discover. Williams looked exactly like Prudhomme and his command of Don’s mannerisms was excellent. Blake also got McEwen’s habits and mannerisms down pat. Yet fifty years from now no one will understand or possibly care how close these two young actors came to imitating the men they portrayed. The art and craft of acting is to bring to life the energy of the roles they are cast in. Williams and Blake have the talent, they did their jobs superbly and I learned some things I did not know and was reacquainted with things that I did know about Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen. They had a friendship that was deep, lasting and true that survived the most severe crises. Williams and Blake made this movie come to life. They made me believe. I can’t get their roles out of my mind. When you can do that you make a great movie. This is more than a movie about car racing. The director could have cut half of the racing scenes out and this would still have been the movie that it turned out to be. The movie was predictable and there are some flaws, but no movie is perfect. Is it entertaining? Is it watchable? Is it worth seeing a second time? Yes, it is. I rate SNAKE & MONGOOSE a 6 ½ sparkplugs out of an 8 and advise you to go see the film with a loved one.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.