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Thursday, November 6, 2008

LONG WAY DOWN -- DVD review by porfle

Part travelogue and part reality series, LONG WAY DOWN traces the motorcycle journey of actor-friends Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor as they travel 15,000 miles from the northern tip of Scotland to Capetown, the southernmost point of South Africa, for no apparent reason. (In the predecessor, LONG WAY ROUND, they went from London to New York via an easterly route.) Ewan we all know, of course, as young Obi-wan Kenobi in the STAR WARS prequels. Charley, whom you may remember as that insufferable little bastard Mordred in his father John Boorman's classic EXCALIBUR, describes Africa as "the last mad place in the world."

Why make such a journey through such a harsh continent? Because it's there, we come to understand. And what we witness over the course of 10 episodes on three DVDs is not unlike a horizontal mountain climbing expedition with a dash of blind obsession and a heap of cocky big-kid frivolity as they push ever onward toward their distant destination.

The first episode consists mainly of their extensive preparation for the 3-month journey, during which they'll be accompanied by a third cyclist-cameraman and two SUVs containing the producer and director, two cameramen, and a medic. Lending a strong sense of forboding to the entire affair is their stint in something called "hostile training school" in which they learn to observe the proper etiquette during kidnap attempts or dicey border situations at gunpoint. I don't know about you, but any sightseeing tour that begins with hostile training school is one that will most likely be missing me as an active ingredient. As it eventually turns out, though, such precautions will prove unnecessary.

Things get off to a rocky start as Ewan cracks up in London traffic and cracks a leg bone. His wife, Eve, who has never touched a motorcycle in her life, decides she wants to accompany them for ten days during the trip and undertakes a crash-course in cycling that begins with learning to take the bike off its stand and start it. This development initially doesn't set well with Charley, whose anxiety is increased when his own wife comes down with pneumonia hours before their departure and ends up with a collapsed lung.

Finally, they set off for Scotland with their BMW 1200s and, upon their arrival there, begin the journey proper. As they travel through England, France, Italy, and on to Africa, we get to know the boys as they chatter into their helmet mikes and alternately ooh-and-ahh over the scenery and complain about the weather and terrain. Ewan comes off as something of a dashing doofus, while Charley not only strikes me as the sort of bloke who'd light his own farts, but actually does so during one of their camping stops.

Much of LONG WAY DOWN consists of watching these guys ride their motorcycles through miles and miles of scenic countryside or barren wasteland, stopping off here and there to visit various points of interest. (STAR WARS fans in particular won't want to miss the Tunisia episode in which Charley and Ewan tour the original living quarters of Luke Skywalker's Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, still standing after all these years.) Mostly they have a grand old time of it, but when fatigue sets in or they hit some really rough stretches of bumpy or sandy ground, it's amusing to listen to them bitch and moan as though they were on some kind of forced death march on wheels.

To add a little reality-show drama here and there, we sometimes see them rushing to make some crucial ferry crossing, cracking up on the trail (Ewan in particular seems to fall over a lot), or arguing amongst themselves, and it's during these times that the series most resembles "The Amazing Race." When they finally decide to quit being in such a hurry and take more time to enjoy the adventure, it becomes a lot more enjoyable for us.

Most interesting to me are their numerous interactions with the locals, who for the most part are wonderfully generous, helpful, and friendly. Along with the good vibes come some quite serious segments, such as a visit to a genocide museum in Rwanda and a UNICEF camp for the rehabilitation of children that have been kidnapped from their villages and trained to fight against their will.

The DVD is widescreen, with the image and sound quality being quite good for a TV show done on the fly in the wilds of Africa. (Helmet cams, diary cams, and two cameramen ensure good coverage of most everything that happens on the trip.) "The Missing Face", a disc-two documentary, describes Charley and Ewan's work with UNICEF to benefit African children who have been orphaned by AIDS and must fend for themselves. Disc three features several brief deleted bits and post-journey activities, an interactive map, and a photo gallery.

You pretty much know what you're in for when you watch LONG WAY DOWN, so if that's your cup of tea then you should find it fairly compelling entertainment. As for me, I learned a lot of interesting stuff about Africa and its people, and enjoyed the gorgeous scenery and the sight of two affably naive actors travelling--one might even say "bumbling"--their way through it all.

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