In 1971, filmmaker Bruce Brown — previously noted for the surfing ode "Endless Summer" — helped kick-start an explosion of interest in the motorcycle world with his Oscar- nominated documentary "On Any Sunday." More than three decades later, Dana Brown, after asserting himself last year with the surfing documentary "Step Into Liquid," again follows in his father's footsteps (or should we say tire tracks?) with "Dust to Glory," a loud and boisterous but heartfelt chronicle of the 2003 Baja 1000 off-road race.
The event was first officially staged in 1967 after the Mexican peninsula had become a magnet for dirt bike and dune buggy enthusiasts. It began as a fairly low-key affair but quickly gained notoriety and credibility via the participation of racing greats such as 1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones and celebrities Steve McQueen and James Garner. International exposure, including "ABC's Wide World of Sports," eventually led to the corporate-sponsored logistical behemoth it is today. More than 1,200 professional racers and weekend warriors — fearless and, yes, quite possibly nuts — drive and ride over a demanding course laid out each year by promoter Sal Fish.
Dana Brown and his 90-person crew use 50 cameras and a helicopter to follow the 270 motorcycles, trophy trucks and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) as they tear through dirt, silt, sand and brush in bright sunlight and pitch dark to reach the finish line within the 32-hour window (although some will finish in half that time). Like his father, Brown inserts himself into the action via folksy narration. His husky, laid-back voice sounds something like Kevin Costner, lending a regular-guy aura to the reverential treatment he affords his subject.
Considering his own pedigree, it's not surprising that Brown chooses to underscore the role family plays at the 1000, particularly the relationships of fathers and sons. One multigenerational story features JN Roberts, 62, who won the first Baja race in 1967, returning for the first time in 30 years to team with his son Jimmy on a motorcycle. Even motocross legend Malcolm Smith, a standout in "On Any Sunday," turns up with his son.
The spine of the film is the journey of Mike "Mouse" McCoy, a Hollywood stuntman and Baja veteran who chooses to do the race solo on a motorcycle without the benefit of a teammate to spell him. Through McCoy, we see the extreme dedication that the athletes bring to the race. Practically incoherent at times and experiencing a series of mechanical challenges that are typical of the event, he perseveres well beyond the point of rationality.
Brown spreads the narrative thin at times, introducing an awful lot of characters for a 94-minute movie, and the pace would benefit from a little breathing room to enjoy some of the thrilling images, but in the end it's a film built on emotion, not information. To some extent, that may be Brown's point. As in any endurance test, finishing is victory in itself, and Brown celebrates equally those who lead the pack and those who limp in, battered and bruised, half a day later while also commiserating with those whose luck — mechanical or otherwise — runs out somewhere in the desert.
Although Brown is not interested in dissecting the event — you won't find anyone questioning the race's environmental effect on the Mexican terrain, for example — he is extremely adept at capturing what commentator Jim McKay used to refer to as "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."
'Dust to Glory'
MPAA rating: PG for racing action and peril and for some language.
Times guidelines: A rider picks large needles from his forearm after tangling with a cactus.
A Brönwã Pictures presentation, in association with SCORE International, released by IFC Films. Writer-director-narrator Dana Brown. Producers Scott Waugh, Mike McCoy. Executive producer C. Rich Wilson. Director of photography Kevin Ward. Editors Dana Brown, Scott Waugh. Music Nathan Furst. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
Exclusively at the Landmark Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.