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'The Bikeriders' review: Motorcycle drama coasts on fumes

Courtesy of Focus Features


The shape of legacy looms large over writer-director Jeff Nichols’ beautiful, but ultimately hollow semi-biographical “The Bikeriders,” which follows the evolution of a fictional Chicago based biker group known as the Vandals. A group whose inception was inspired, in part, by Marlon Brando’s 1953 film “The Wild One” (of which Nichols throws many nods and easter eggs too, including names and locations), the Vandals are held together by a strong moral code. Or so they think. Really, the group was started so they could have an excuse to get together and crank brewskis, but it becomes more than its creator, Johnny (a raspy, heavily accented Tom Hardy) could’ve foreseen. The film tries tackling everything from the camaraderie of the gang to a budding romance between Jodie Comer’s Kathy (who narrates the film) and Benny (a gruff Austin Butler who tries though doesn’t quite nail the Jimmy Dean façade) and both storylines never gain a sense of rhythm or much depth beyond their basic intentions. Considering the immense amount of talent Nichols was able to bag, it’s a bummer “The Bikeriders” sputters and stalls before running out of gas.


“The Bikeriders” is inspired by Danny Lyon’s coffee table book, whose iconic collection of photographs and interviews provide the foundation for where Nichols’ steers the film. That book documented Lyon’s time within the Chicago biker scene from 1963-67 where he was given unprecedented access to various motorcycle gangs. The film tries using a similar framing device wherein Mike Faist plays a Lyon’s stand-in interviewing Kathy (Comer harboring a thick midwestern accent that can be a little jarring at first, but you get used to it) about the Vandals and their crew, yet the film never establishes a coherent timeline. It bounces around to various points without much sense of place. It can’t decide whether to be a romantic drama, a moral drama, or a tragedy surrounding two lifelong friends who clearly want different things with their lives (Benny and Johnny). That is to say, “The Bikeriders” has a bit of an identity crisis.


It's evident that Nichols wants to pay homage to the biker scene while also drawing inspiration from other prized works. So, it’s not a shock that the movie begins with a scene eerily reminiscent of “Goodfellas” where we meet Benny (Butler) at a bar, hunched over, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth looking for a brawl. Two local bikers want him to remove his Vandals jacket, and the ensuring fight ends with a freeze-frame where Kathy’s voice beams in and sets the stage for the ensuring two hours. 


Kathy and Benny, of course, will become romantically involved and she will undoubtedly become enamored with his bad-boy biker persona, but those looking for any real connection within this relationship will be disappointed. There’s minimal spark and their mostly sexless affair primarily consists of them arguing about whether or not Benny should be rolling with Johnny and the Vandals. Complicating our commitment to them, there’s long stretches of the film where it seems Nichols, in what I assume was an effort to trim the runtime, forgets about Kathy and Benny entirely.


Amid this, we do get introductions to other members of the Vandal clan, and they are a fun if uneven bunch: You’ve got Wahoo (Beau Knapp), Corky (Karl Glumsman), Cal (Boyd Holbrook), Zipco (Nichols regular Michael Shannon), and the bug-eating Cockroach (Emory Cohen) who will go out of his way to tell you how much he likes munching on insects. This is a good crew and what Nichols' script does exceptionally is making them endearing enough that you’d consider having a beer with them. It’s the best part about this disjointed movie. 


“The Bikeriders” then assembles into an extended montage of sequences involving the Vandals escapades (picnics, backyard throwdowns, and arson), what Johnny envisions for their future, and how the group has taken on a life of its own (which draws its own comparisons to what Tyler Durden did in “Fight Club”). It’s not long before other biker groups pop up throughout various cities and states. Some, like Norman Reedus’ Funny Sonny, who sports a greasy hairdo and rotted teeth, ride in from California just to hang with the OG’s. Then there’s a squad of young up and comers headed by someone credited as The Kid (Toby Wallace) who want to leave their own mark on the biker scene, which they feel is becoming outdated. 


But the screenplay rarely stops to understand these characters, thus keeping the emotional connection of “The Bikeriders” at an arm's length. The scope of this world, including the code of ethics the Vandals establish for themselves, is interesting. For example, anyone can challenge Johnny to a fight without warning. And when they do, the question is simple: fist or knives. After all, the Vandals offer these guys a reprieve from the muddiness of their lives. But we wouldn’t really know what that looks like outside of the club. Johnny has a wife and two daughters, though we hardly see them, similar to all the other wives sprinkled throughout the movie. The only female character given any levity is Comer and her performance is the glue that tries holding it together, but even she feels underutilized.


And then there’s Butler, who proved his acting chops in “Elvis,” trying to ground “The Bikeriders” with a subdued portrayal, though his tough-guy demeanor is hardly believable. To play someone with Benny’s live or die on the road mentality, you need to first believe he’s actually ridden motorcycles his entire life and Butler, for all his talents, never got me there. I’m not even sure he’d be welcomed into the Wild Hogs. 

Grade: C 


THE BIKERIDERS is now playing in theaters.


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