‘The Bikeriders’ Review: Examining The Rebel Rousers

User Rating: 7

One of my main curiosities leading up to filmmaker Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders is how popular the outlaw biker genre still is. I could be underestimating it, as TV has picked up the slack with Sons of Anarchy and its spin-off sticking around for over a decade. Cinematically, however, if I’m not counting something like the Mad Max franchise, how aware are general audiences of films like The Wild One, Easy Rider, or Hells Angels on Wheels? Whatever the case, at its core, The Bikeriders wants to take an introspective look at what it means to be a part of a biker gang. This also means exploring masculinity and the collateral damage that comes with forming this sort of surrogate family. Practically structured to play like the Goodfellas of biker flicks, while this film doesn’t measure up to becoming a new American magnum opus, it features strong enough performances and a solid perspective on the time period to deliver an entertaining ride.

Set during the 1960s, we follow three main characters but are guided through the times by one via their narration. This is Kathy (Jodie Comer), who is being interviewed about her time spent as a wife of one of the Vandals, a motorcycle club based near Chicago. Kathy is being interviewed by Danny Lyon (Mike Faist in a thankless role), who would go on to put together the 1967 photo-book serving as inspiration for this film. For the record, the Vandals are a fictional biker gang (subbing in for the Outlaws), but one can gather there’s a level of truth to most of the things Kathy talks about.

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Comer, who won an Emmy for her work on Killing Eve and was excellent in The Last Duel, handles one notable aspect of the film that certainly keeps up a spirited element – the accent. Being one of two English leads, the Midwest/Chicagoan accent is hit so distinctly that it’s nearly impossible not to rule this out of being a vital part of the DNA of the film from director Nichols’ perspective. It feels all the more relevant because of Tom Hardy’s work as Johnny, the leader of the Vandals. Being such a method performer, I have little doubt he did the work needed to find what he thought would be the voice for this guy, even if it feels like Hardy, but with a voice dialed up from Eddie Brock in Venom. One just then has to stack it against the range of other performers here, whether it’s scene-stealer Michael Shannon, Boyd Holbrook, or Damon Herriman, all playing different Vandals gang members.

Of course, there’s also Benny (Austin Butler), Kathy’s husband and the guy Johnny considers most reliable. Over the course of the film, we realize there’s a love triangle taking place here, with Kathy vying for the man she married, while Johnny sees this kid he knows will follow him anywhere, and Benny seeing Johnny as the purest means of what it is to be the ultimate biker badass. For his efforts, Butler plays a young but fierce biker gang member quite well. He also says the least amount of words in the film, so his accent doesn’t stand out as much. With that said, when you have Hardy and Butler on screen together, both doing their best to channel Marlon Brando, it becomes pretty clear that Hardy has found a way to show off his talent and on-screen charisma in a manner that can’t help but tower over Butler.

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For what it’s worth, however, I feel like the script (also by Nichols) serves too much of a conventional arc for the characters to allow for more standout work from Butler. Comer gets to play up a wide range of emotions, from curiosity and fascination to anger and frustration. Hardy plays things in a way where even while having small instances of understanding his interior life, he’s doing enough for us to know what makes this guy tick (with a lot of it being rooted in his understanding of machismo based on things like The Wild One, which is referenced directly).

On the other hand, Butler plays things aloofly, and I’m not sure that going purely on swagger was enough to bring his character to a higher level. Yes, early on, when we see him go about wooing Kathy to his side (scaring off her boyfriend by simply smoking outside their house while perched on his Harley all day), there’s a cool factor the film knows how to capture. Later on, though, while I didn’t think I needed a big monologue to spell it all out, I also didn’t feel any sense of discovery to expand on Benny’s interests, drive, and eventual results when push comes to shove.

This speaks to the general plotting of the film, which I’ve already noted follows a traditional path for historical fiction. The audience is introduced to the club, gets a sense of how they act, and is brought to a precipice when it comes to the line between admiring their outlaw way of living and realizing this is not all that healthy when it comes to the long haul. At this point in the breezy but somewhat episodic sub-2-hour movie, the Vandals are evolving. The group is becoming larger, Johnny can’t control everything, other clubs are becoming an actual challenge (though I wish the film would have delved more into this), and the prospects of becoming more of an organized crime outfit are touched upon (this film basically ends just as the golden age of biker gangs takes a more significant criminal shift).

Through all of this, we see how the actions of the Vandals affect Kathy, Benny, and Johnny, whether or not they are directly involved. For Johnny, it means continually proving to himself that he needs to keep charge of this way of life. With Kathy, she’s smart enough to know she has to show strength to the men in her life if she’s going to have any effect on breaking through the male egos and getting at what they need to hear. And Benny is taking stock of how far Johnny will go and what he should do when given the options presented in front of him.

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Nothing is wrong with utilizing this structure, and the film shines when giving time to the other members and whatever antics or predicaments they find themselves in. Some moments do a fine job of getting at what these guys are after. Shannon’s character, Zipco, has a wonderful bit where he explains the pain of being rejected by the Army after volunteering himself for the Vietnam War. Another sequence focuses on Emory Cohen’s attempts to exit the Vandals to pursue a new way of life (still involving motorcycles) and the conflict that it creates.

There’s a lot to like about The Bikeriders. It captures a very specific atmosphere well, which also speaks to the wonderfully vintage (but widescreen) cinematography by Adam Stone and the impressive sound design that captures all the revving engines. Plus, while I’ve mentioned some issues with Butler, he is good enough here, but Comer and Hardy are fantastic in their roles. They bring just enough life and humor to make this an enjoyable drama to watch. The Bikeriders is still a bit narratively constrained by holding back on deeper ambitions. However, I still feel like I witnessed a group of proud riders showing off their sweet rides.

The Bikeriders opens in theaters on June 21, 2024.

the bikeriders

7
Good
Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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