A move from sea to desert would be difficult for anybody, and it certainly derails Dana Brown, whose surfing documentary “Step into Liquid” caused a big splash in 2003 but is unlikely to repeat the trick with this film recording the 2003 running of an exhausting 1000-mile race on Mexico’s Baja peninsula. What distinguishes the contest from all others isn’t merely the length and treacherous natural “course,” but the fact that it’s open to anybody and every sort of vehicle from motorcycles and hugely expensive trophy trucks to dune buggies and ancient Volkswagon bugs.
From the purely photographic standpoint, the work of Brown and his crew–a small army, to be sure–in capturing the energy and innate danger of the event is impressive. The cameras catch driver and rider’s-eye views of the race with great skill, showing spectators scattering as the machines roar toward them. They also capture the near-impenetrability of the dust through which the racers have to pass, often in the dead of night with little headlight power to spare. The race footage proper, mostly caught with hand-held and helicopter-borne lenses, is often thrilling stuff.
But it’s also presented pretty much in a vacuum–the picture isn’t very successful in giving us a sense of geography while the contest continues, or showing us (except in one memorable episode involving two cycles) two competitors actually within sight of each other. Moreover, it’s preceded–and continually interrupted–by bits of interviews with various competitors, race officials, commentators, former participants and grand marshal Mario Andretti. And over it all is poured the weakest element in “Dust to Glory”–the inescapable narration, written and delivered by Brown himself. The text is overburdened with cliches and overblown panegyrics, and delivered with a gushing exuberance that makes it all the worse.
The other really serious weakness of the film is that its coverage of the contestants lacks focus. We’re introduced briefly to a lot of people, but very few of them are given time to develop sufficiently. The ones we get to know best are probably motorcyclist Mike “Mouse” McCoy, a co-producer of the picture who rides the entire race himself (while other cyclists do so in teams); Team McMillan, consisting of grandfather, father and son; J.N. Roberts, who returns to the contest three decades after winning to team up with his son; and a female team consisting of the wives of various male contestants. (Obviously the race as family tradition is one of the points Brown harps upon.) But even they are treated surprisingly sketchily.
In the final analysis, like the Baja 1000 itself Brown’s film is broad rather than deep. The race footage certainly gets the adrenaline going, but the effort to dig beneath the surface of the event disappoints; the picture gets the dust down pat, but the glory doesn’t register as it should. As a result Brown’s movie may appeal to speed junkies who can put up with the lack of depth to experience the feel of excitement the race footage provides, but others are likely to find it a pretty long haul.