"Downhill Racer" is either a skier's movie with a better plot than the average ski flick (Warren Miller notwithstanding), or it's a drama of sorts with skiing and romance mixed in. It's in the same league as "Bobby Deerfield," with Al Pacino as a race car driver looking for success both on and off the track.
Redford plays a convincingly arrogant, self-absorbed loner from Idaho whose only shot at glory is on the struggling U.S. ski team. Gene Hackman delivers spare yet superb scenes as the team coach. He recognizes Redford's talent on the snow but wrestles with his maverick attitude. I think the film sums up the important themes in small, quiet touches. When another skier carps about Redford's aloofness, his teammate (Dabney Coleman) reminds him that "it's not exactly a team sport, is it?" And when a European journalist asks Redford what his plans are after the Olympics, his nervous and stoic answer is "this is it." He knows there's not much outside of skiing.
Even romance offers no success for Redford's character. His sometime girlfriend back in Idaho is chatty and distracting: she represents all that is holding him back at home. In Austria, he encounters a fast-moving, highly sophisticated woman who leads him on and is more than a match for his self-centeredness. All he can rely on are his skis and his hunger to go faster. What the movie shows in the end (though it's easy to miss) is that the archetypal brash athlete can only win the gold if his heart and mind are there as well as the raw skill (what Hackman's coach calls the "regard for the sport... the desire to learn"). Think of Tom Cruise in "Days of Thunder."
"Downhill Racer" hasn't grown in stature as a drama of sport, but it is worth a viewing. The characters are more contemplative than talkative, and the fashions are dated, but the focus is on the challenge of the hill and what's in one's heart - just like skiing itself.