Going into a film by Dana Brown, it's important to recognize that he's not so much a documentarian as a booster. The son of the likeminded Bruce Brown, best known for the globe-spanning surf chronicle The Endless Summer and its sequel, Dana Brown approaches film by showing up, shooting some eye-popping footage, stringing it together with some interviews, and packaging it so it never loses its homey "Aw shucks, don't folks do kooky stuff?" tone. It's not even worth trying to look beneath the surface; his films are all surface.
Sometimes that's enough; at other times, it's not. In his debut, Step Into Liquid, Brown continued his dad's surfing enthusiasm, finding unexpected surfing hot spots in Wisconsin and Ireland. Only in an awkward tribute to Sept. 11 did the real world break the genial mood. There's not much to Step Into Liquid, which occasionally seems like a surfing recruitment drive, but it's good company while it lasts.
With Dust To Glory, Brown takes it to the sand and narrows his focus, covering one year at the Baja 1000, a point-to-point race covering a thousand miles of unforgiving Mexican desert. Open to anyone who can front the entrance fee, the race features everything from motorcycles to high-tech, experimental trucks. The participants race across open country, unpopulated back roads, and, most terrifyingly, highly populated towns. Some pursue victory, others chase more personal goals. In a race that even the bravest regard as a relay event, Mike "Mouse" McCoy attempts the entire course alone and on a motorcycle.
What drives him? Dust To Glory never really gets into that. There's no psychology here, just crazy feats and the crazier people who attempt them. The approach works so long as Brown has the footage to back it up, but Dust To Glory feels curiously understuffed. Amazing shots of four-wheelers racing blindly across silt deposits and drivers walking away from blazing wrecks share time with poorly developed profiles of peripheral figures and even more peripheral moments. No doubt the random passersby who picked up a stranded Mario Andretti found the experience thrilling, but their excitement doesn't translate to film, particularly when it's obvious that something more momentous has to be happening somewhere. Brown probably captures enough to satisfy hardcore enthusiasts, but everyone else might end up wondering why he ignored the glory for the dust.