Monday, 15 July 2024

‘The Bikeriders’ takes a wild ride on the outlaw biker culture


In the early Fifties, Marlon Brando inarguably established himself as a great actor with roles like the brutish Stanley Kowalski in “A Street Car Named Desire” and longshoreman Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront.”

And then there is Brando’s starring role in 1953’s “The Wild One,” where his rebellious motorcycle gang leader Johnny Strabler and his fellow bikers wreak havoc when overrunning a small town.

“The Wild One” is a seminal film in the motorcycle subculture where nonconformists pledge fealty to a biker group that love cruising while wearing black leather jackets. The film is considered to be the original outlaw biker film.

“The Wild One” could be said to have inspired an era of rebellion, and over the years the theme of defiance of social norms has been at the root of many films, and you can count on “The Bikeriders” to be one of them.

Inspired by Danny Lyon’s photobook of the same title, “The Bikeriders” sets the stage for what feels like a quasi-documentary because Mike Faist plays the part of the photojournalist recording with his camera and microphone the activities of the fictional Chicago-based Vandals gang.

The photobook recorded Danny Lyon joining the Chicago chapter of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club, a group that even Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who embedded with the Hells Angels for a book, warned in vain was a bad idea.

The effort by Lyon to record the exploits of the Outlaws occurred during the turbulent Sixties and while the film is loosely inspired by the real motorcycle club, much of the dialogue comes apparently from the interviews in the book.

At one point in the unfolding of the Vandals story, a scene shows Tom Hardy’s Johnny, actually a family man with a trucking job, catching “The Wild One” on television and being inspired to organize the club with a bunch of guys who love racing bikes.

The dedication of the bikers belonging to the Vandals is most vividly demonstrated early on by Austin Butler’s Benny drinking alone at a bar and being accosted by two burly men demanding that he remove his colors, namely the leather jacket emblazoned with the Vandals identification.

The handsome Benny, who looks more like James Dean than his feral, grungy, and unwashed cohorts, doesn’t take kindly to the insulting request and lets them know they would have to kill him before he would comply.

This act of defiance in the spirit of a true rebel leads to a violent confrontation where Benny is so seriously injured that an obligatory extended period of rest jeopardizes his future as a biker.

As the film is structured in a series of vignettes, the storytelling is anything but linear, jumping a little bit erratically but not so confusing as to take anything away from showing how close friends, the laconic Johnny and brooding Benny, are the soul of the Vandals.

Other notable Vandals, if not the inner circle, include the mellow Brucie (Damon Herriman), easy-going mechanic Cal (Boyd Holbrook); bug-eater Cockroach (Emory Cohen); and wildly unstable Zipco (Michael Shannon), so mentally unfit he was rejected for military service.

The glue holding the story together really belongs to Kathy (Jodie Comer), who first becomes acquainted with the Vandals when spotting Benny lining up a shot at a billiards table and then winds up being the chronicler of the biker life in a series of conversations with Mike Faist’s Danny.

Meeting Benny that night leads Kathy to ride off with him to the dismay of a boyfriend who appears to be living with her at the time. In short order, Kathy and Benny get married, and thus starts a chapter that eventually ends up testing Benny’s loyalty to the gang.

From the initial start of the Vandals as a group just enjoying the thrill of riding with abandon, a shift occurs with the increasingly dark element of the presence of other bikers fueled by drugs and violence.

Especially after suffering severe injuries in the barroom altercation, Benny finds himself torn between loyalty to Johnny and the Vandals and Kathy’s pleading with him to give up biking and relocate to Florida for a better life.

Newcomers seeking to join the Vandals bring tension to the ranks. Spelling big trouble is the Kid (Toby Wallace), who was previously turned down by Johnny for his lack of loyalty to his friends.

During a relatively short span, the Vandals transition from a social club to a band of criminals, and the blame goes to the next generation of riders, represented by the Kid and his ilk who are gratuitously violent and not respectful of the code of the original members.

“The Bikeriders,” owing to the evident passion of writer-director Jeff Nichols, elicits intense performances from his cast of iconoclastic bikers for a compelling depiction of a lawless subculture, yet with an oddly superficial insight into character motivation.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

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