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Hard Miles Review: Modine’s Cycling Movie

Matthew Modine and his group of cyslists cycle on the road in the movie Hard Miles

R.J. Daniel Hanna’s movie Hard Miles, with Matthew Modine, is an inspiring sports drama about redemption and the power of cycling.

Director: RJ Daniel Hanna
Genre: Sports Drama
Run Time: 108′
US Release: April 19, 2024
UK Release: TBA
Where to watch: in US theaters

Hard Miles, starring Matthew Modine and directed by R.J. Daniel Hanna (Miss Virginia), is the true story of juvenile prison social worker Greg Townsend. More than just another sports drama, the film is about personal redemption for Townsend and a group of young men from a juvenile institute who are in his charge.

One day, after a pattern of fights and incidents that put the future of Ridge View Academy and these young men in the air, Townsend gets an idea. Cycling might offer them a path through their troubles, like it’s helped him in his own life, and so he decides to assemble a cycling team of teenage convicts and take them on a 1,000-mile ride.

If Ratatouille‘s guiding principle was “Anyone can cook,” Hard Miles’ guiding principle might as well be “Anyone can cycle.” The story of Greg Townsend and Ridge View Academy is not well-known. Townsend wasn’t a professional cyclist but a humble social worker with a complicated family dynamic. The young men in this movie are not cyclists to start either, but they become ones out on the road. While their goal is to complete the peloton, they start from nothing. The cycling stakes in the film are not at the same level as a dramatization of Lance Armstrong and the Tour De France, but they are still compelling and very grounded in humanity. Hard Miles even playfully acknowledges part of its own premise, at one early point talking about the 1000-mile “Tour De Greg.” 

The movie aptly points out that bike riding and life are hard. Townsend believes in his mission  to rehabilitate these young incarcerated men. It’s not entirely selfless for Townsend, as the reality of his own family problems and health issues bear down on him. Along on this journey is Haddie (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams, of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey), a child psychologist from Ridge View. 

The ramp test is the starting point for our group of young men. The stationary cycling workout gradually gets harder, filled with peaks and valleys. And it sufficiently kicks their butt. It’s their introduction to the nuts and bolts of what a cycling team is, and like in this movie, it turns out everyone has a part to play. Cycling is challenging, and so is having the courage to accept your human vulnerability. Hard Miles is about coping, working together, and pushing through. Townsend needs these young men as much as they need him.

The film gives us a small taste of the requisite sports movie training sequences and reveals character through them, but the bulk of the training and growth for our characters happens on the road. For the men and Townsend, cycling is a way to process trauma. The movie shows this very well through flashbacks interspersed with particularly challenging cycling moments. As the characters push themselves up vertical and hard miles, the visions of what is going through their head are very powerful. Getting over what haunts you is not an easy task, and Hard Miles and Townsend make the point with the physicality of the trek.

Matthew Modine and his group of cyslists stand in front of the mountains, looking at each other in a circle, in the movie Hard Miles
Hard Miles (Blue Fox Entertainment)

The journey is challenging, and it’s not just because of the difficulties cycling at altitude and heat. Not only are there complicated personalities who are young and have suffered at play, but there’s great external pressure on the characters because Ridge View faces a revoked charter and closing. The only constant and steady amidst it all are the unrelenting miles.

Matthew Modine is entirely believable as Greg Townsend. This is a much different role than his breakout in Full Metal Jacket and or even his recent turn in Oppenheimer. He’s had a storied career with legendary roles, but as you watch him on screen, you don’t see the other characters from his history, only Greg Townsend. Modine’s skillful turn in the role is amplified by his genuine cycling passion, helping to blur the lines between actor and character.  As a character, he is fully responsible for the lives of the young men on this journey, and as an actor, he embodies the character with persuasive reality. There is a vulnerability to his portrayal as well. Just like the young men from Ridge View need this trip, Townsend needs the trip to deal with everything with his father. 

As Haddie, Cynthia Kaye McWilliams is mainly a sounding board for Townsend. She’s the voice of his better angels brought to life. This isn’t her story, and we don’t fully grasp what drives her, but because McWilliams does such a great job at bringing her to life, that’s okay. Like Modine, she embodies the character, too. Haddie’s moments in reflection with Townsend and where she challenges him have a duality to them – they ooze both the wisdom of a psychologist who has seen things and a certain toughness as well. McWilliams is convincing.

The ensemble of actors that make up the young men from Ridge View in the Banda di Catene, the chain gang cycling team, are also the heart of the story. As an audience, we want to see them succeed. Jackson Kelly, Jahking Guillory (The Chi), Damien Diaz, and Zachary T. Robins are Townsend’s welding class turned cyclists. All the characters have different reasons for being at Ridgeview. The actors never play these men to caricature, there is a truth and frankness to how they bring them to screen. The second half of the film, where we see their relationship blossom, is entirely satisfying. 

Before making the jump to feature directing, director R.J. Daniel Hanna was an editor, and that editing sensibility comes through in how the story is told. The scale of the outward and inward journeys is shown magnificently, with moments held on screen for just long enough for maximum emotional impact. This is elevated by Mack Fisher’s cinematography. Fisher breathtakingly captures the vistas of the American Southwest, and it’s hard not to be awed by the on-location filming at places like The Grand Canyon. Close-ups balanced with wide shots of the characters as tiny figures spotted along the grandness help hammer home the vastness and possibility of the world. 

Hard Miles is an entertaining and emotional film that will satisfy your need for sports dramas tinged with inspiration. Although things work out in the end for our characters, the ending on-screen text points to a bittersweet reality for Ridge View. The movie is worth checking out.

Hard Miles will open in US theaters nationwide on April 19, 2024.

Hard Miles: Trailer (Blue Fox Entertainment)
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