For those not familiar with Long Way Round, basically its a document of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman riding around a large part of the world on BMW motorbikes. The two actors met on the set of The Serpent's Kiss and became fast friends, and found they shared a mutual love of two wheeled fun and decided to set out on the road trip to end all road trips. Now, on the surface, this sounds like a textbook example of a vanity project, right? Right. Thankfully, it's anything but. Yes, the two leads are noted actors, McGregor particularly as he's famous all over the world thanks to Star Wars and Moulin Rouge, and it's possible that this celebrity status helped them get the sponsorship that they needed for the trip, but it more or less ends there.
Throughout the seven episodes on this set we witness the trip from its beginnings as an idea in their heads, through the planning phases, working out the logistics of what is a pretty massive undertaking, through to scoring up a support team and finally, to the trip itself which makes up the vast majority of the material found here. Once the guys head out into the more remote areas of some of the countries they travel through, the series becomes not only a real eye opener in terms of demonstrating the differences between various cultures, but also a great documentation of the kindness of strangers, and a fantastic montage of beautiful scenery and dramatic (and sometimes very dangerous) travel footage.
Here's a brief run down of how the series plays out across this two disc set:
Episode One: The premiere episode shows us how it all starts. We're given some basic background info on who Ewan and Charley are, how they met, and the kind of friendship they have. From here they go into the planning stages, assemble a support team, and dig up a cameraman in the form of a Swiss man named Claudio who ends up needing to get his license certified in the UK in order to accompany them. They go about getting sponsorship, decide what bikes to use (ultimately they really have no choice but to go with BMW – but it proves to be a good move), and plan their route. By the end of the episode, they're on their way out of London and hitting the road…
Episode Two: From here Ewan and Charley hit Prague while they wait to find out whether or not Claudio got his proper license. He fails the first time but passes on the second attempt and meets up with them later on. They visit The Church Of Bones in the Czech Republic, make a Unicef stop at Chernobyl, and Ewan ends up having to go to an eye doctor after getting sprayed in the face with gasoline.
Episode Three: The focus of this episode is on the journey through Kazakhstan. The going starts to get rough here, though the people in the area are only too happy to see them visiting their country and treat them quite well. The police insist on escorting them through certain areas that have a high crime rate, and they find that the roads in the area are in horrible condition and not at all fit for motorcycling on. An electronics vendor brings them into his home for a meal and surprises them by singing and by showing off his AK-47.
Episode Four: From here they voyage into Mongolia, where things get even uglier in terms of terrain. The roads get muddy and the bikes have some serious trouble with what lies ahead of the riders. Claudio's BMW breaks down and the bike has to be sent for repair, and in the interim they're able to buy a cheap Russian bike for him to use that proves to be more capable of handling the terrain than the larger bikes, as it weighs a lot less.
Episode Five: One of the support vehicles gets into a bad accident and ends up laying on its side. Ewan and Charley head off to meet the support team to make sure everyone is okay. From here, they struggle through the rest of Mongolia and finally back into Russia. They do some shopping in a local market and eventually have to bribe some officials to allow them to take their motorbikes on a train into Siberia.
Episode Six: This time around we see them struggle their way through the Eastern part of Russia, along the Road Of Bones on their way to the coast where they'll fly to Alaska. The terrain once again proves to be incredibly harsh and in spots the road more or less just ceases to exist. Heavy rainfall has made the rivers almost impenetrable and things stay very difficult for the crew, especially as Charley has injured his shoulder in a fall.
Episode Seven: The final episode is the wrap up, essentially. Firmly planted on North American ground, the guys ride up through Alaska, into Canada, get into accidents in Calgary, and finally maneuver their way into the United States. Once they're on American soil, they hang out with the West Coast Chopper guys for a bit before heading into New York to reunite with their families and bring the trip to an end.
Aside from the fantastic scenery that we get to check out and the interesting people that the crew interacts with along the way, a large part of what makes Long Way Round work is the human drama that takes place between Ewan and Charley. As the show progresses you stop thinking about them as two movie stars on an ego trip and start thinking of them as two guys out on a very length road trip, doing what they love to do. They have no qualms about letting the cameras capture them at some very unflattering moments – we see Charley take a tumble and wreck his shoulder, we see the results a bug bit has on Ewan when his forehead swells up like a grapefruit and we see the results of Russian mosquitoes on his pasty white ass – all in plenty of detail. The lack of pretension is refreshing and it's great to see the down to earth and human side of these guys as they get right into the thick of a very obviously challenging ordeal.
The show also has a lot of humor. Some of the interaction between Charley and Claudio, the third rider and cameraman, gets to be interesting when they have to share a tent after Claudio's gear is stolen. Charley and Ewan are constantly ribbing one another as they go about their business, and everything everywhere seems to remind Ewan of Scotland. When a car slows down to peer at the guys as they're sitting at the side of the road, Ewan tells them that 'these are not the bikes you're looking for' while Charley tries not to get caught smoking on camera. It's also interesting to see how they react to different cultures on their journey, whether it be sampling a soup made out of two hundred animal testicles or rewarding some Mongolian men with Johnny Walker when they're able to repair a broken motorcycle.
Moments like those above, combined with the more intense footage of a bear being hunted down and shot by the Russian guides, interaction with impoverished children by way of some Unicef visits (some of whom literally live in a whole in the ground), and the two leads wrestling with whether or not to go on with the voyage once the hit some serious obstacles makes for a well rounded, interesting, educational and very entertaining few hours of television.
NOTE: The DVD releases of Long Way Round for Canada and England come with ten episodes, as opposed to the seven contained on this American release. Why this is, I cannot say, but it's irritating that not all of the material included on the import releases is found in this set.
The episodes are all presented in 1.66.1 widescreen and while there's a fair bit of detail present in the picture, there's also some mild motion blurring, which might prove to be annoying to some viewers. The image is pretty clean though and the colors come through nicely, even if there are some mild compression artifacts present. For a series that was shot under some rather adverse conditions on digital video without the aid of lighting setups or a huge team of cameramen and technicians, the material comes through looking surprisingly decent. The image isn't perfect on this set, but it's perfectly watchable.
The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix is decent but not reference quality – again, likely because of the way it was recorded and the conditions under which the material was shot. Some of the dialogue between Ewan and Charlie that was recorded over the conversations they had while wearing their helmets is fuzzy and at times riddled with static but you can always make out what they're saying and when it gets really bad, burned in subtitles appear. The narrated scenes and video diary scenes sound fine, and the music comes through very nicely in the mix.
All of the extra features are on the first disc in the set. Here's what you'll find!
First up is a massive Still Gallery that features a bunch of candid shots from the trip along with some explanations of what's happening and where they were taken.
There are also five Unseen Clips from the series – Trip Preparation (6:45), The First Five Days (17:50), I Just Can't Do It (2:45), Glacier Plane Ride (4:05), and Wrong Way Round (6:01). These are interesting to see, particularly the clip where Ewan and Charley come damn near close to giving up on the whole idea.
After that we find a Post Trip Interview with Ewan and Charley, who talk for a five minutes about the massive amount of material they shot versus what ended up in the final version, how the trip changed their lives, and how they feel about what they did in retrospect.
Finally, some information on Unicef is also provided in the form of a thirty-second public service announcement from Ewan and Charley.
While it's nothing short of annoying that seemingly every other country got a ten episode release while the US market has to make due with a seven episode release, the content of the series is great and completely worth while. The video quality isn't perfect but it'll do, and the same can be said about the audio – but this is to be expected given the circumstances. For anyone who has ever wanted to just pack up and go somewhere just for the sake of doing it, Long Way Round comes highly recommended, but don't be surprised if there's a re-release down the road as this set is not complete.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.