Hard Miles (3 stars out of 4)

As spring bridges the gap into the summer, R.J. Daniel Hanna’s “Hard Miles” may be just the thing to get you geared up for the great outdoors.

Inspired by the true story of a man named Greg Townsend, who founded the successful Ridgeview Academy cycling team, “Hard Miles” follows a group of troubled teens on a bike ride to the Grand Canyon. Matthew Modine plays Townsend, an instructor at a school for boys on the verge of entering the justice system. When he isn’t breaking up fights in the hallways, he’s teaching skills like welding in the hopes of giving young men more promising futures.

It’s a taxing existence, so Greg is excited to take some time off for a long-planned 750-mile bike trip—or “Tour de Greg,” as his co-workers have dubbed it. Unfortunately, just a few days shy of departure, he gets two pieces of bad news: first, his estranged father’s health has taken a bad turn, and second, the school needs to get some positive press coverage to keep its tenuous charter.

Determined to salvage his vacation, Greg decides to help four of his students to build bikes of their own, and with a little sponsorship assistance from the local bike shop owner (played by Sean Astin), he pieces together a makeshift racing crew to make the journey and get the school its needed PR.

The bulk of the film follows Greg and the boys as they battle themselves and the elements, first fighting over simple things like wearing unflattering bike shorts, but eventually facing down the more daunting task of making one-mile vertical climbs in cobbled road bikes. And that’s to say nothing of keeping the troubled boys in check along the way, as they threaten to make for the nearest Greyhound station and escape to a life that will likely put them behind bars.

Hanna’s effort makes the best of its modest budget, taking in some beautiful scenery, and building on the foundational performances of veterans like Modine and Astin. But the most effective element of “Hard Miles” is the complexity of its lead character. Like Gene Hackman’s Coach Norman Dale in “Hoosiers,” Greg is far from a simple, one-dimensional do-gooder. The ride is an uneasy fusion of a well-intended publicity stunt and a personal quest, and flashbacks to Greg’s abusive childhood suggest this epic desert journey may not be the best thing for the kids, or even for Greg himself.

The tension elevates “Hard Miles” above the level of shallow, sunny-eyed inspiration, but the serviceable script and a muddled, somewhat-cliched ending keeps Hanna’s film from joining the upper-echelon of uplifting sports films like the aforementioned “Hoosiers.” It’s a slap in the face when a punch in the gut might have been more memorable, but it is a scenic slap in the face for sure.

“Hard Miles” is rated PG-13 for mild fisticuffs and scattered profanity.

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