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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Dick Francis Thriller - The Racing Game
The Dick Francis Thriller - The Racing Game
Acorn Media // Unrated // August 12, 2008
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted August 5, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
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The Movie:
Dick Francis must be the Rodney Dangerfield of British mystery writers, at least as far as television and film adaptations of his many novels go. In the film world, we have the less than brilliant Dead Cert, a pretty shoddy enterprise despite starring a pre-Dame Judi Dench and having a usually at least competent (and sometimes brilliant) director, Tony Richardson. On television, things have been similarly bleak, with a number of one-off adaptations, as well as this short-form series starring Francis' handicapped former jockey detective Sid Halley.

As probably everyone knows, Francis, a former jockey himself, writes mysteries which revolve around the world of horse racing, sometimes rather tangentially. These six television adaptations all feature the sport fairly centrally, with Halley's expertise coming into play as he sorts through various machinations that make up each individual plot. The six adaptations are:

Odds Against sets up the basic premise of Sid Halley's investigative career, one he's forced into after a devastating fall cripples his left hand (in fact it's more of a stump after several botched surgeries). The basic mystery, such as it is, in this episode concerns an evil tycoon who is wreaking havoc on a racecourse so that he can redevelop it as a commercial property. The fact that the villains are identified as such pretty much right off the bat, and then aren't seen again until a sadistic final scene, is just one of many problems in this too-rushed adaptation.

Trackdown is the clever name that Halley and his partner Chico come up with for their detective agency. In this episode, Halley becomes something of a mini-Six Million Dollar Man, when he is fitted with a high-tech prosthetic left hand. This episode's crime involves race fixing, as several long shots keep beating a horse that should be winning by a mile. This episode features some fairly graphic imagery of a colt being born, for those who are squeamish about such things. However, for you Night of the Hunter, there's a passing hommage to Robert Mitchum's "hand art" with one of the bad guys.

Gambling Lady involves a relatively labyrinthine plot (at least for this set of adaptations) which starts with a horrific accident which kills a horse and ultimately leads to an international plot with some tangential insurance fraud. This episode has the bonus of a side trip to Milan, where Halley and Chico follow clues leading to the ultimate denouement.

Horses for Courses is more than a bit reminiscent of Trackdown as it involves a complex race fixing scheme and a hired killer who is desperate to keep secrets, even if it involves murder. Again, a too-broadly drawn group of villains, almost cartoon-like at times, defeats any real sense of danger, even when Halley, as is sometimes the case, gets in over his head and sees his own life threatened.

Horsenap has an unusual premise involving a kidnapped horse and its strange connection to a wrongly convicted prisoner. This episode has some of the best plotting of the series, without the silly buffoonish bad guys that seem to regularly dot other episodes.

Needle once again goes back to the well of race fixing, only this time with the added element of horse drugging. Halley finally gets what looks like it could have been a recurring love interest in this episode (had the series continued), when he seeks the help of a comely Cambridge scientist. Unfortunately, a too pat "couple in harm's way" second act hampers the ultimate enjoyment of this episode.

This entire series can be faulted on any number of levels--low production values, rampant overacting (especially by the baddies), and storylines that have been butchered from their originals in order to come in at an hour's broadcast time (meaning about 50 or so minutes of airtime for each story). While the screenwriters at least don't tamper with Francis' penchant for creating leading characters full of flaws (and Halley has them in spades), Mike Gwilym's performance in the role is fairly lackluster, full of glowering introspection and a dearth of charisma. Plus, no fault of his own, he simply does not look like either a leading man or, more importantly, a jockey.

The Racing Game is redolent of the late 70s in both its style and substance, with an at times funny underscore that sounds like the Average White Band attempting to reinvigorate the dying disco idiom, and the sort of faux-hip attitude that even then was becoming passé. There's a reason this show bombed when it was originally broadcast in the UK, and unfortunately that reason is preserved digitally now for a new generation to watch in wonderment.

The DVD

Video:
This is a pretty bleak looking series, with a soft, 1.33:1 image full of grain, especially in the location outdoor shots. Colors are OK, nothing more, with acceptable contrast.

Sound:
The remastered DD soundtrack is certainly acceptable for television fare, but, again, is nothing remarkable. There's no noticeable hiss or distortion, and if you have some gold chains and spandex lying around, the music may be perfect background for a disco party.

Extras:
A brief text biography of Francis is the only extra offered.

Final Thoughts:
Some smart British producer needs to step up to the plate and give Dick Francis the adaptations he deserves. One of the most distinctive UK mystery writers of all time, it's literally an embarrassment that his many novels haven't been better translated to the film or television medium by now. As for The Racing Game, it's eminently skippable.

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"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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