Marshall Bennett knows how to live on two wheels. On two feet? Not so easy.
Marshall was a motocross wunderkind once—a dual-wheel dynamo who tore up the amateur ranks in the 450cc class and made life miserable for his competitors.
But when he heard the Army’s call, he answered. “I always wanted to serve,” Marshall says. So he took his skills to Afghanistan, riding a military motorcycle as a member of the U.S. Rangers. He and his partner, Riley, served as scouts, essentially, riding their bikes through Afghanistan’s hostile terrain, locating Taliban hotspots and taking in—or out—enemy combatants.
But with three months left in his tour, Marshall and Riley roar right into a Taliban ambush and, when they try to flee, run smack into an IED. Riley is worse off, but Marshall’s injuries are pretty bad, too: The explosion ripped into his left leg and shredded his ankle. Doctors save his leg, but they warn him that his ankle and foot might never be the same.
Thing is, your ankles and feet are kind of important for riding a motorcycle. You use them for balance and support. And in motocross, you need it to shift, too: A flick of the left toe shifts the bike’s gears. If you can’t flick, you can’t shift. And if you can’t shift, there’s no way you can race.
Not that he should anyway. Doctors also say one bad fall could land him in a wheelchair for good. And Marshall’s wife, Sophie, isn’t about to let that happen.
“No unnecessary risks,” she reminds him. “End of discussion.”
A year after his Afghanistan injury, Marshall’s still in a brace, still on crutches. He’s living with Sophie and his year-old son and his dad, Cal, on the family farm. Instead of riding dirt bikes, he’s fixing them.
But he’s starting to get feeling back in his foot. And when he learns that Cal just might lose the farm to drought and debt, he begins to think about hopping back on his old bike—hoping to earn enough money to save it.
No unnecessary risks, Sophie warned him, and she’s not kidding. She insists that, if he ever straddles a dirt bike again, she’ll take their son and leave. And hey, Marshall loves Sophie. He’d do anything for her.
Except, maybe, give up the thing he was made to do.
Marshall Bennett is more than a good motocross racer: He’s a pretty good person, too. He loves his country enough to voluntarily sign up and serve in the army. He loves his wife enough to hang up his helmet for a good long while. And he loves his dad enough to pick up his helmet again to try and save the family farm. (Sure, that’s a little problematic, and we’ll get into that later. But for now, let’s give the guy credit for trying to do the right thing.)
Sophie, naturally, is furious when she learns that Marshall’s gone back to racing. But she’s only furious because the dangerous sport, and Marshall’s precariously patched-together foot, both scare her to death. She’s only looking out for Marshall’s well-being, and she’ll do whatever she can to protect him.
When Marshall returns to the sport, she’s determined to make good on her last-ditch promise and leave him. But Cal sits her down and talks with her. He was married to a helicopter pilot for 22 years, he tells her, and every day she was out on a tour, he was terrified she’d never come back. But Cal knew it was her job and something she loved doing. So he pushed away the fear that something might happen someday and concentrated on living and loving in the here and now. Sophie takes the advice and becomes Marshall’s biggest helpmate, even pushing him to train harder. “The stronger you are, the safer you’ll be,” she tells him.
Marshall also risks his life to rescue his pal Riley—something he and his family are extremely grateful for (as you might expect). “Thanks for bringing my daddy home,” Riley’s daughter tells him.
Sophie leads the family (along with Cyrus, Marshall’s friend, boss and crew chief) in a dinnertime prayer—acknowledging that it’s been far too long since they prayed together. “Dear Lord,” she begins, “We’re always grateful for this time together,” offering words of thanks for the many blessings they’ve been given.
Cyrus, we learn, has family in Iran. At one point he crosses himself in gratitude. “Aren’t you Muslim?” Marshall asks him. “Only in front of my grandmother,” Cyrus says.
Marshall surprises his wife in their bedroom, grabbing her, lifting her up and throwing her on the bed. Sophie notes that it’s “been a minute” since he (as she euphamistically puts it) waited up for her, and Marshall seems determined to make up for lost time. The camera leaves the room before things get too intimate.
Later, Sophie returns the favor—surprising Marshall and pushing him to the mattress. She straddles him (we see quite a bit of her exposed leg) and they kiss before the camera, again, modestly leaves the room.
Soldiers talk about girls. A few women wear tops that bare midriff and cleavage. Sophie, noticing a couple of ladies in revealing tops schmoozing with motocross sponsors, announces to Marshall’s team manager that she’ll work on “public relations” for the team. When the manager asks what makes her think she’ll be any good at it, she says, “The sponsors are men and I have boobs.” She dons a tight T-shirt that augments her figure.
In Afghanistan, Marshall and Riley take part in a frenetic firefight with hostiles. A couple of their assailants are shot, and Riley’s also peppered with bullets. (He seems to be wearing body armor, so the bullets knock him down but leave him relatively unhurt.) As they flee on Marshall’s bike, they hit a tripwire that triggers an explosion. Both men go flying. When Marshall wakes up in the hospital, his face is covered with bruises and bloody scratches. When the camera pans to his leg and foot, we see that a pretty bad wound has been stapled shut.
Motocross isn’t a violent sport, exactly. But combine speed with crowded, difficult dirt tracks and you’re going to have the potential for some serious injury. One racer careens off the course and is soon after whisked away by an ambulance. (We learn that he broke his leg.) Several others wipe out, and on-helmet cameras show other competitors weaving deftly around the wrecks.
Marshall falls off a stool while trying to change a light bulb. Cal drops a wrench on Marshall’s injured foot. It hurts a lot—which Marshall realizes is actually good news. Cyrus gets into a fistfight with a few members of a rival team—eventually getting punched in the face and knocked out. We hear that Marshall’s mother died in a helicopter training accident. Other racers talk about injuries they suffered. Someone sports some pretty bad burn scars on his face and neck. Marshall, after his first race, clearly is in serious pain because of his still-tender foot.
We hear about eight s-words. Characters also utter “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—,” “ pr–k,” “p–s” and the British profanity “bloody.”
A couple of characters drink a beer or two. A doctor is appalled at the willingness that motocross competitors have to put their bodies in danger for their sport—saying that they’re “worse than junkies.”
A member of a rival team sneaks into Marshall’s area and sabotages Marshall’s dirt bike. Later, team Marshall retaliates as a joke: They remove a screw from a chair the guy sits in, and the evildoer falls (harmlessly but embarrassingly) backward.
Marshall’s desire to return to racing is a point of serious conflict between him and Sophie: One night, he rides around the family farm on his bike, swearing his father to secrecy. He doesn’t tell Sophie that he’s returning to the track, either. Only when he comes back with an envelope full of prize money does he confess. (Cyrus also aids and abets Marshall’s activities, even though he knows Sophie would not approve of them.)
We hear a couple of discomforting gags regarding sexism and ethnicity. For instance, Cyrus talks about the irony of Marshall “smoking Arabs” in Afghanistan, and yet he works for one. (Cyrus asks Marshall, again jokingly, whether he might’ve killed any of his relatives.)
Bennett’s War feels like it lifted its core story from any number of sports movies: Sympathetic plucky underdog takes on well-funded, underhanded competitors and wins (even if he loses). It’s Rocky, it’s The Karate Kid, it’s Space Jam (sort of), only with dirt bikes. And while that might not make for a particularly creative story, it at least provides a backdrop suitable for likeable, root-worthy heroes. Michael Roark’s Marshall Bennett is a fine good guy here, pushing back against motocross’s playground bullies in an effort to save his family, the farm and, in some respects, himself.
“I’d rather risk (death) than die a little bit every day,” he says.
And fans of motocross racing—or those who could become fans—will appreciate that sentiment and the racing action.
I should note, though, that Bennett’s War almost feels more like a motocross commercial than a full-fledged movie—what with its thimble-thin plot and loads of insider cameos and product placement opportunities. For me, that shill factor, along with the movie’s unnecessary language, undercut its inspirational takeaway a bit.
This movie, like motocross itself, gets muddy. But for fans of the sport, or those who like to see nice guys finish first for a change, you could do worse.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.