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Review: Jockey biopic 'The Cup' loses its way

Despite strong acting, director Simon Wincer's film gets mired in details in telling the dramatic story of jockey Damien Oliver's win at the 2002 Melbourne Cup.

May 11, 2012|By Betsy Sharkey
  • Damien Oliver (Stephen Curry) rode to a big victory a week after his brother, also a jockey, died.
Damien Oliver (Stephen Curry) rode to a big victory a week after his brother,… (Village Roadshow )

"The Cup," the true-life story of jockey Damien Oliver's miracle win atAustralia's2002 Melbourne Cup just a week after the death of his brother, is a tale of heart-wrenching tragedy and uplifting triumph that never quite hits its stride.

This modestly rendered biopic directed by Simon Wincer, who co-wrote the script with Eric O'Keefe, gets too bogged down in the details to ever fully capture the pathos and pain that marked Damien's remarkable journey. It gives even shorter shrift to the comeback tale of the horse he rode, Media Puzzle, almost put down after a broken pelvis that should have been career ending.

Instead, "The Cup" is a relatively perfunctory walk-through of this Australian racing legend set against the backdrop of that country's Kentucky Derby. It is a story book-ended by death, beginning with Damien's father, jockey Ray Oliver, who took a killing fall during a race that left his wife (Colleen Hewett) to raise two young sons, then 5 and 3, alone.

Damien (Stephen Curry) and his older brother, Jason (Daniel MacPherson), would follow in their father's footsteps, with Damien emerging as the riding star.

In 2002 as the film opens, Damien's accepting his latest jockey of the year award with Jason doing the honors, but the Cup is approaching and he doesn't yet have a horse to ride. Across the ocean another racing legend, Irish thoroughbred trainer Dermot Weld (Brendan Gleeson), is deciding whether Media Puzzle is ready to run again and who might ride him.

Phone calls are made, contracts are signed and all that is left is the Cup, until a bad break in a minor race leaves Jason on life support, and in an instant everything changes.

Much of the film is spent piecing together the back stories that precede Jason's accident and Damien's fateful decision to still compete in the Cup: flashbacks of their father's death, the brothers' close bond, Damien's rising fortunes, their mother's constant worry about her boys. In Ireland, there are small slices of Dermot's work to ready Media Puzzle for the race, the early mornings framed by the sound of running horses.

Meanwhile in Dubai, the crown prince and Dermot's chief competitor that year is watching trainer Saeed Bin Suroor (Harli Ames) prepare his horses for the international tourney as well.

The film develops an uneven gait as it moves among the three worlds, with Gleeson and Curry handling the lion's share of the action. Curry ("The Castle") has the lean, wiry look of a jockey, and the actor spent enough time training with racers — both Damien himself and the thoroughbreds used in the film — to physically inhabit the part.

Gleeson, so excellent carrying last year's black comedy"The Guard,"slips into character with the kind of ease that seems to come naturally to the veteran Irish actor. He gives Dermot just enough edge and just enough heart.

The races themselves are beautiful to watch and intense with Wincer ("Free Willy" and miniseries "Lonesome Dove") collaborating with director of photography David Burr, who worked with the director on 1996's action-fantasy "The Phantom." But that intensity drops nearly any time the film moves off the track. Given all the impossible choices the young jockey had to face, "The Cup" should have been a weepie if ever there was one — but the filmmakers stumble on their way to the finish line.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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