‘The Bikeriders’ Review: Mileage May Vary

Peter Paras reviews The Bikeriders, an enjoyable enough modern take on the outlaw biker gang genre, focused on a fictional group during the 60s.
User Rating: 5

Based on Danny Lyon’s photo book of the same name, The Bikeriders wears its grease-stained faces like the best high school rendition of Grease ever. In a way, such an observation turns out to be a feature, not a bug, in detailing (and heavily whitewashing) the lives of ’60s motorcycle dudes and one gal in southern Illinois. Adorning leather jackets that look brand new, it’s the kind of experience where a character named “Cockroach,” because of course he’s called that, talks about being dirty with messed up hair even though not a frock is out of place. Is writer/director Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special) being meta? Is this just a nearly two-hour SNL skit starring Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, and Tom Hardy? I highly doubt it, but that doesn’t make the unintentionally poser moments less funny. Look, I love Hackers, The Doors, and plenty of other flicks that are best enjoyed despite themselves. If biker cosplay is your thing, rev up those engines…

The Bikeriders captures a rebellious time in America when the culture and people were changing. After a chance encounter at a local bar, strong-willed Kathy (Comer) is inextricably drawn to Benny (Butler), the newest member of the Midwestern motorcycle club, the Vandals, led by the enigmatic Johnny (Hardy). Much like the country around it, the club evolves, transforming from a gathering place for local outsiders into a dangerous underworld of violence, forcing Benny to choose between Kathy, his loyalty to the club, and his BFF Johnny.

the bikeriders

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Like Oliver Stone’s 90’s classic The Doors, the casting is spot on, for the most part. As the leader of the Vandals, Hardy does his quiet smoldering thing, Comer has a baffling accent but is credible, and Butler mostly lets his James Dean hair do the heavy lifting. A vet of Nichol’s films, Michael Shannon, shows up alongside The Walking Dead‘s Norman Reedus and a few other character actors. All are doing the work despite the production design by Chad Keith (Scream) and costumes by Erin Benach (Birds of Prey) feeling more like a beer commercial than anything resembling “gritty.”

Structurally, the script goes from the past, beginning in ’65 to “after the events” in the 70s, as Kathy recounts her time with Benny and the Vandals to soon-to-be coffee book author Danny (the terrific Mike Feist). This results in many scenes being visually repetitive as Danny has his hand outstretched with a microphone or a camera to Kathy or other interview subjects with names like Funny Sonny (Reedus), Zipco (Shannon), and my personal fav Brucie (Damon Herriman, who convinced as Charles Manson on Netflix’ Mindhunter). In between the recounting are the requisite crime flick scenarios: seedy bars, the open road, and a house party that’s not that different tonally than the one in 2022’s Scream finale. (Same production designer!)

the bikeriders

And yet, sure, I can probably name a half dozen moments where authenticity is clearly not the goal, but I was mostly entertained. I’ve seen these crime tales for as long as I’ve watched movies. There’s no denying like a cowboy on their steed, people on motorcycles are pretty cinematic. I might prefer what Gus Van Sant did with the desert highways of Americana in My Now Private Idaho, starring River Phoenix and Keane Reeves, but those wide open spaces rarely come up empty. That alongside, the roar of the engines (okay, that did get a tad tiring about forty minutes in) makes for something artistically shallow yet no less engaging.

Early on, Johnny gets inspiration to start the Vandals Motorcycle Club while watching The Wild One, starring peak Marlon Brando. When asked what he’s rebelling against, Brando’s Johnny (same name, get it?) replies, “Whaddya got?” Is this an eye-roll moment? It depends on one’s entry point in these types of stories. For me, being a good actor, Hardy makes the scene work. I like seeing two method actors from different eras sharing the screen. On the other end of the spectrum, Reedus is done up like Dennis Hopper’s character from Easy Rider via The Walking Dead, which is less effective.

If there’s a glaring issue that may keep The Bikeriders from being a fun, guilty pleasure, the film unfortunately wades into darker subjects like sexual assault. Worse still, the way the scene is handled attempts to make the old school riders we’ve been following look less criminal compared to the new-fangled pothead Vietnam era-riders. The whole moment, despite Comer’s good performance, feels disingenuous. Further, while we see a few people of color in the background, the prominence of the 1% and Iron Cross patches worn by the Vandals is probably period accurate, but not addressing the racial issues quite literally attached to their jackets is, at best, naive. The ugly history of white supremacy is there whether or not Nichols wants to address it.

The Bikeriders is an enjoyable ride that one shouldn’t think too hard about. Hardy leads a strong cast through the A to B to C and back again tropes of literally any crime drama with ease. A better film would be worth more than one ride, though.

The Bikeriders opens in select theaters on June 21, 2024.

the bikeriders

5
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Written by
Peter Paras is pop culture writer who has been reviewing films for the past fifteen years. Raised in Chicago—but an Angeleno since the start of 21st century—he has plenty to say about films, television, videogames, and the occasional YouTube channel. He’s a frequent guest on Out Now with Aaron and Abe, as well as TV Campfire Podcast. His work has been published at Why So Blu, Game Revolution and E! Online. His favorites include: Sunset Blvd, Step Up 2 The Streets, Hackers, Paris Is Burning, both installments of The Last of Us, Destiny 2, and Frasier.

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