Film Review: McConkeyA combination of terrific action footage and an endearing protagonist make this film worthy of the big screen.
A thrill-stuffed sports doc whose daredevil subject will quickly endear himself even to viewers who've never heard his name, McConkey eulogizes an extreme-sport pioneer who died in 2009 before reaching the age of 40. Though it will play very well on cable and video (the skier was the star of innumerable videos circulated among fans), the film's heights-centric performance footage, much of it shot on spectacular snowy peaks, rewards theatrical viewing and bodes well for specialized theatrical bookings.
The son of a Canadian pro skier and one of his students (the couple divorced when he was three), Shane McConkey first strapped on skis before his second birthday. He seemed destined for racing, moving from California to Vermont to attend a school known for funneling students to the U.S. Ski Team. But with a personality fixated on juvenile attention-getting pranks (racing down the slopes naked was an enduring favorite), he failed to make the team.
When McConkey and some college roommates saw the MTV-like 1988 video The Blizzard of Aahhhs, which featured cut-ups doing off-course stunts (one, Glen Plake, sported a Mohawk), he realized he cared less about racing than testing the limits of what could be done on skis. Entering pro mogul races to make what he considered easy money, he devoted his time to increasingly daring stunts, working first in Vail, then in Squaw Valley after he was banned from Vail's slopes. (See above reference to naked skiing.)
Around this point, the film can rely less on McConkey's habit of videotaping his daily life and antics on the slope. Self-shot footage gives the filmmakers colorful evidence of his sense of humor and slacker-with-an-adrenaline-addiction ethos, but their most exciting performance footage comes from the many self-taught filmmakers who featured him in movies with titles like Alpine Rapture, Steep and Ultimate Rush.
Some of those men share directing credit here, weaving their old footage together with interviews in which roommates, family and McConkey's wife Sherry offer a unified portrait of a man who didn't have an "off" switch. The film foreshadows McConkey's death from the start, returning frequently to scenes of him scouting locations on Italy's Dolomite Mountains. But death only starts to overshadow the interviews as speakers recall McConkey's discovery of BASE jumping, the illegal sport in which parachuters leap off buildings, bridges and the like.
Using vertigo-inducing video shot with helmet-mounted cameras, the film captures some of the rush of this sport, making it easy to understand how McConkey became addicted—undertaking hundreds of jumps, then branching out to stunts (inspired by The Spy Who Loved Me) in which he would ski off a cliff, dump his skis, and use a chute to reach the ground.
Though he made many successful ski-BASE jumps (having consulted with Spy stuntman Rick Sylvester), that was what would kill him in Italy. The film uses footage from that day as dramatically as it can without becoming morbid, capturing the moment of his death not in footage of the fall (McConkey couldn't release his skis in time to deploy his parachute) but in video of the cameraman who shot it. Even here, though, they honor the athlete's sensibility by including thrilling (if near-sickening) footage shot on his helmet camera as he approached the cliff.