- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

Maybe ESPN should stick to live sports and avoid the movie business.

The Worldwide Leader isn’t about to take that advice, especially with an ever-expanding multimedia empire that reaches millions. ESPN Original Entertainment’s latest film, “3,” is probably the network’s most ambitious movie project to date. Yet it comes off as being little more than what it is: a hyped made-for-television film aspiring to be average.

“3,” which premieres Saturday at 9p.m. and likely will be replayed dozens of times in coming months, is a dramatization of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt’s life and death. With Barry Pepper starring as the Intimidator, Earnhardt’s rise to fame as a stock car driver is covered, though his fatal crash at Daytona in 2001 is only briefly touched on at the film’s conclusion.

Maybe because of time constraints (ESPN no doubt will be trying to sell plenty of related merchandise during commercial breaks), Earnhardt’s story unfolds in almost staccato fashion. Director Russell Mulcahy attempts to cram as much of Earnhardt’s life as possible into “3,” though sometimes at the expense of story flow. It’s a noble try, but the result is a biopic that should be far easier to follow than it is.

Also a nagging concern is just how little development occurs among the people in Earnhardt’s life. Instead of surrounding Earnhardt with believable people, there is instead a cast of flat characters.

Earnhardt’s father is determined and wise. Teresa Earnhardt, his third wife, is clever and loyal. Dale Jr. wants to be just like his dad. Drivers Neil Bonnet (Dale Sr.’s friend) and Darrell Waltrip (his chief rival) are reduced to being almost cartoonish in their roles (though it’s hard to object to depicting Waltrip that way, given his television persona).

It’s tough to blame any of this on the actors, who do a decent job given the quality of their material. Pepper is a believable Earnhardt, though a bit more credible as an aging legend in the No.3 car than an aspiring youngster on the dirt tracks. J.K. Simmons is solid as Ralph Earnhardt, though he relies as much on facial expressions as words. Elizabeth Mitchell does about as much as she can in her role as Teresa Earnhardt.

If ESPN simply wants to reel in the NASCAR set and no one else, most of these problems fade because it’s hardly a new story to fans. However, even they may be turned off by a depiction of a more sensitive Intimidator, a man much different from the one who nudged aside several foes en route to a record-tying seven NASCAR titles. Of the many words to describe Earnhardt, maudlin probably isn’t one used often if it all, though at times it’s hard to tell from this.

While it’s easy to point out the deficiencies of “3,” ESPN deserves credit for the well-done racing scenes. There is also plenty of reliance on file footage from ESPN’s archives, a wise decision that no doubt saved money while adding the credibility of professional broadcasters describing some of Earnhardt’s career highlights. While it might come off as self-serving, those highlights (as well as a “SportsCenter” reference) actually work well.

Nevertheless, “3” stumbles because it overdramatizes an already dramatic tale. Earnhardt’s story — escaping a miserable existence in a North Carolina mill town to become a racing star while also raising a family that included a logical heir to his NASCAR throne before an early death on the track — is plenty compelling. Yet the filmmakers felt the need to sprinkle some foreshadowing of a fatal wreck into the plot.

It just shows what many already know: Live sports provides far better (and more authentic) theater than most movies could ever dream of capturing.

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