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“Being Evel” treads a fine line, making it clear that its subject was a heroic symbol of his times and a clear sports innovator while also acknowledging — and there’s no getting around this — that the guy was a huge jerk.

Evel Knievel started out as a low-level crook named Robert Knievel in Butte, Montana. He picked up the nickname Evil while sitting in the local jail, then sanitized it to Evel. After cleaning up his act and selling insurance for a while, he turned to selling motorcycles. To promote sales he started doing motorcycle stunts — jumping over deadly snakes, doing wheelies up and down a track.

Eventually, he took his skills on the road in the early ’60s, at first with a troupe of other motorcycle hotshots and then on his own. He’d jump through rings, blast through flaming walls, jump over cars. How confident was the guy? Most of the time he wouldn’t even practice a stunt, he’d just say he could do it and then try in public.

This led to some spectacular crashes and a lot of broken bones. But Knievel, who decked himself out in red, white and blue, was performing these stunts during the tumultuous ’60s, when America needed a hero to focus on. He became a regular attraction on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and earned millions off licensing deals and a toy motorcycle figure. George Hamilton played him in an early ’70s biopic.

But success spoiled Knievel. A serial womanizer even though he’d married young and fathered a brood — his son, Robbie Knievel, actually bested most of Evel’s jumps eventually — Knievel ended up snarling at press events and lashing out in public. After a onetime friend wrote a book about him that he considered unflattering, he took a baseball bat to the man.

That landed him in jail and effectively ended his career. His wife eventually divorced him, his house was repossessed by the IRS and he ended up a frail old man.

The film argues persuasively, though, that Knievel essentially invented, or at least perfected, the concept of extreme sports. Tony Hawk, Johnny Knoxville and others say he was the inspiration for all the snowboarders, skate boarders, bicyclists and yes, motorcyclists currently flying through the air and performing gravity-defying tricks. In their eyes, at least, the evil in Evel was outweighed by inspiration.

tlong@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/toomuchTomLong

‘Being Evel’

GRADE: B

Not rated

Running time: 99 minutes

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