Every now and then, a sports documentary comes along that draws in even those normally reduced to boils and boredom by the relevant activity. Asif Kapadia's Senna managed that feat with Formula 1. The upcoming Red Army, a surprise hit at Cannes, does the business for Soviet ice hockey. All of which is by way of explaining that Road, a film about two generations of Northern Irish motorbike racers, is not just for fans of two-wheeled mayhem.
Enthusiasts will find plenty to savour. But, featuring a rich brown voiceover by Liam Neeson and sickening on-bike footage, Road tells terrible, exciting, tragic stories that fairly rattle the spine.
Though Joey Dunlop's name will be familiar to most punters, only the committed will have much notion of his achievements. Raised in Ballymoney, Co Antrim, the charismatic rider secured five Formula 1 titles at the Isle of Man TT and won the Ulster Grand Prix on 24 occasions. Road also reveals that, in characteristically unshowy fashion, Dunlop worked hard to support Romanian orphans following the collapse of the Ceausescu regime. In 2000, he died in a crash at a race in Estonia.
Meanwhile, Dunlop’s younger brother Robert set about establishing his own career. Neither appalling injuries nor Joey’s death could dissuade Robert from pursuing those nagging ambitions. He eventually perished at the North West 200 in 2008. His two sons, Michael and William, continue the tradition. Just last week, the latter suffered two breaks to his fibula at this year’s TT.
The film begins by offering some astonishing statistics concerning the dangers of road racing, then goes on to invite its subjects chances to explain their motivations. Ulstermen from heel to scalp, none of them opens up quite enough to make sense of the apparent death wish. But it remains clear that the danger is part of the buzz. Dizzying footage taken from (it seems) the handlebars of hurtling motorbikes pushes home the point. We end up with a film that is properly – maybe deliberately – equivocal about the sport at its heart. You can see it as a celebration; you can view it as a depiction of madness in action.
To the uninvolved, only addiction can make sense of the Dunlops' continuing devotion to an activity that positively invites catastrophe. Aside from other great sporting documentaries, one thinks of a film like he recent McCullin, in which legendary photographer Don McCullin talked about his need to cover the most dangerous war zones.
Quite properly, the interviews with Joey and Robert's mother allow her to express grief with dignity, but don't press her into any further emotional stress. The voiceover is dramatic without ever becoming portentous or mannered. Directors Michael Hewitt and Dermot Lavery are masters of balance.
It is, perhaps, worth noting what's missing from Road. Regrettably, it doesn't investigate why Ulster people are so disproportionately obsessed with motor sports. Is it something to do with the fatalistic Nordic temperament? Only Finland competes with the North in its per-capita enthusiasm for cars and bikes. So there may be something in that.
More interestingly, despite following the Dunlop story from the mid-1970s to the present, Road feels no need to address the Troubles and the way in which the brothers drew support from "both communities". The absence is most gratifying. This is a film about something else, and we apologise for dragging the squalid subject into this review. The time may eventually come when such questions never cross the mind.
In a slow, football-damaged week for films, we have, at least, one gem to savour.