Racing is what I call, my life. Whenever a new movie trailer is released that’s centered on the subject of motor racing, it’s going to be a big deal for someone like myself. Sure the Days of Thunder/Talladega Nights/Rush blockbusters were nice, but those were all about established, globally identifiable types of racing. The kind of racing that I, as well as millions of people across the country, enjoy most is dirt track racing. To date, there has yet to have been one satisfying movie that has dealt exclusively on the subject of dirt track racing. So when I saw this movie poster drop, you can imagine my level of anticipation.
John Travolta, Shania Twain? Ok, maybe not a movie chemistry match made in heaven, but having big names like this would mean they’d actually have to try right? The rest of the cast looked reasonable, this seemed that it was worth a good, close look. For once, it appeared that a quality film about an under-appreciated type of racing could finally become a reality. So how does Trading Paint stack up? I’m not much of a movie reviewer, but I think I’ll try to break the film up into three distinct aspects and attempt to draw a conclusion from there. First things first, let’s examine the story. (Spoiler free)
A young Super Late Model driver named Cam Munroe (Toby Sebastian) driving for his car owner father, the legendary Sam “The Man” Munroe (Travolta) is at a crossroads in his career. Cam’s talents are constantly being overshadowed by the mechanical breakdowns of his father’s cars, making him always come up short against family rival,”Lead Foot” Linsky (Michael Madsen). Seeing an opportunity, Linsky offers Cam a deal to drive one of his race cars, which would be a great way to improve his win totals, but it would also mean having to leave the family race team. Cam is thinking about improving his racing career, but at what cost to his family?
Ok, so it’s not the most inventive story ever told. In fact, the story from start to finish is pretty barebones. There’s a beauty in it’s simplicity though, without the underlying aspirations for NASCAR racing, and there’s no crazy social or political angles either. The classic “conflict, failure, redemption” story works well, but it won’t challenge you in any way. Moreover, the subject matter, story and atmosphere make it feel more akin to an independent film. A cliched tale, but one where we can consume the story in a vacuum. But if that’s the case, what’s with using all the big names?
You’d think that with a project like this, the acting would make a tight and thin story really shine. Deep down, I’m sure that was the intent, but it’s certainly not what happened with the execution. John Travolta is far from perfect…but I don’t think I’m out of bounds saying it’s his worst performance ever, and I’m including his breathtaking Hollywood hits like Gotti and Battlefield Earth. The film’s setting is Talladega, Alabama, so naturally, you’d expect some accents. After seeing this movie, it is entirely possible that Travolta may never have heard a southern accent in his life. His performance is so full of half-assed raspy “how’re’yous” and “thank-ye-ma’am’s” that you’d think he spent all of 10 minutes working on on making his character sound accurate. His love interest, played by Shania Twain, has sadly chosen Trading Paint as her debut acting role. Given her lack of acting experience, her performance was commendable. In fact, had Travolta given half a shit, the pairing could’ve possibly sizzled on screen. Cam and his young wife were wholly forgettable, and apparently these two actors were on Game of Thrones together, but whatever. The finest performance in the film, which was not a huge accomplishment, came from Michael Madsen. A man that’s never seen a script he didn’t like, Madsen has made grumbling and squinting his way through countless A, B, and C level films as the bad guy into an art form in itself. He doesn’t break any new ground in this film, but at the very least he pulled his own weight. It’s just a shame that a Travolta “phone it in” performance completely drags down everyone else around him.
To most readers of this review, (myself included) the racing and its associated factors would make or break this film. A mild story and ok-ish acting could all be forgiven if the racing portions were intense, realistic, and/or fun to watch. Well…..let’s start with the good: The cars look great. They clearly did their research in this department and the character driven cars are visually pleasing references to the real world dirt Super Late Models in shape and scheme. Any stock racing footage they had was spliced in well, and everything in this department was pretty good. The racing scenes appear have been filmed on location at the Talladega Dirt Track, and going back to the story, the atmosphere is believable and pleasurable in its simplicity. So that’s the good. The bad? Unfortunately that’s everything else.
The cars, while impressive in appearance, skate around the track in a lazy ice dance that lacks any feeling of real intensity. Hollywood has a lot of tricks to make it “look” like cars are driving insanely fast or on the edge of disaster, but none of that cinema magic was used in Trading Paint. This issue was made worse still by the sound. My god….the sound. In-car moments make the cars sound like they are full of buzzing bees instead of the throaty beasts they are. If you’ve never heard what a late model sounds like, have the sound up for this one. The racing itself generally seemed to follow its real world counterparts: heat racing, feature events, all with an overarching point series. Sure, maybe a stock footage clip was a little funky, or there were some questionable word choices from the annoying track announcers, but everything was fairly well executed…until the plot resolving final race of the movie. Again staying spoiler free, but if you’ve seen any racing movie you know the hero and the villain will battle out to the wire in the “big race.” Suddenly towards the end of the race, the flagman starts waving a checkered flag. Instantly, I think one of two things: either I missed something, or someone made an editing fault. Not good, but things like this happen sometimes, I’m just being picky as a race fan. Before I could give it a second thought, the track announcer pops in and says the following:
“checkered flag comes out, only one more lap to go!”
NO NO, NO!!!! NONONONONONONOONOnononononononononononono! Why?!?! What the actual hell? Of all the things to have gone wrong in a movie like this, the fucking checkered flag is where they decide to make up their own lore?! Even the fucking Bollywood racing film Ta Ra Rum Pum knew what the fuck a checkered flag meant. And their NASCAR style races used a 5-wide standing start where the flagman waved a green flag in one hand and the other shot a starting pistol (that’s not even a joke, look it up, that movie is amazing, and was shot mostly at Rockingham Speedway in North Carolina). I don’t get it, they’ve used the checkered flag more than once in this movie, and I was pretty sure they used it correctly. Does that mean the white flag doesn’t exist anymore in a way I could understand? Good god this shouldn’t bother me as much as it does. I was willing to forgive so much of this movie for its acting, thin story, and less than perfect special effects, but this embarrassing error was beyond the pale. I barely remember how the movie ended, as the flag mistake pissed me off so much. I’m sure the heroes won, and the bad guys didn’t…and everyone lived happily ever after, but there was no happily ever after for me after watching this film.
Verdict: Trading Paint is ambitious only in its subject matter, and fails to produce a satisfying experience on any level. An independent film wrapped in recognizable names gives the film promises it didn’t deserve. Had this actually had been an indie flick, it would be something worth talking about. After giving this theory to a friend he said to me, “but without those big names, you’d have never even heard of the movie.”
Quite frankly, that would probably have been for the best.