Revenge of the Fifty Foot Biker Movie

May 1 2009

The way that the entertainment industry has treated motorcycles and motorcycle culture has often, I think, been at odds with its true nature. This is of course true in most forms of “manufactured” entertainment. We see this in the way that the film and television industries simply spoon-feed us popular culture based on a combination of market research and our own distorted view of ourselves as a species. The motorcycle’s popularity as a pop culture icon rises and falls based on this, as witnessed in recent years with the (now waning) surge of prime-time TV exposure. During that time I had written a tongue-in-cheek column here on this very subject.

The release of a film last year that I only managed to see recently, prompted me to take a similar look at motorcycle culture in film. As a more than casual afficionado (and that is certainly more of an admission than a boast) of biker “B-movies”, I could write an entire book on the subject, but I write this as a simple celebration of the last five or so decades, with an encouraging nod to check out a current offering in this unfairly maligned genre.

Though I personally looked at productions like American Chopper and shook my head, for some reason I am drawn to these poorly made, often poorly acted films with little narrative structure and even less creativity in theme. I’m not talking about films like Easy Rider or On Any Sunday. The former is more a counterculture/social comment film than a motorcycle film, and the latter is truly one of the best, if not the best, actual “motorcycle” film ever made. No, I’m talking about Dennis Hopper as Chino, president of the Black Souls MC in The Glory Stompers, Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern in The Wild Angels. Yes, those ones and their kind. That these movies are never considered good by standards used in judging more mainstream films necessitates that they be viewed perhaps within the context of the genre itself; which is to say, we know they’re bad but let’s celebrate them anyway. In fact, stand up for them dammit.

I was disappointed recently after waiting over a year for the release of Hell Ride, the newest addition in a long though sporadic line of these awful ribbons of celluloid. Not disappointed in the film itself of course, and not disappointed in the poor reviews it received; that was expected. I was disappointed in that there wasn’t a theatre within 50 miles where I could see it. When a friend brought a DVD over a few months later I was glad to see that someone is keeping the tradition alive, particularly after a bleak period that for years, saw little more than Stone Cold and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. Enough said.

Hell Ride is unique in that it’s meant to pay homage to all those terrible old “biker” movies from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Perhaps a dangerous undertaking if one is hoping to achieve commercial success, but then re-inventing something that was never any good to begin with suggests that the producers didn’t give a damn anyway, and that in itself is good. They’re an acquired taste, to be sure, but to those with an appreciation for these misunderstood masterpieces, it’s a modern day gem. To those unfamiliar with them, this is truly an excellent introduction. As rottentomatoes.com gave this film an overall (and unfair) 1.1 out of 10, I offer this little counter review in its defense. To all the “critics” that slammed this movie, I give you a certain single digit biker salute.

No plot spoilers here (and yes, there is a plot), just a mention of a few things that those in the know will understand. For example, a great combination of bikes including ratty shovelheads, Indians, springers, Triumphs, BSA’s, and even at least one “Exile” looking sled thrown in for good measure. Oh, and the shovelheads actually sound like shovelheads, for those that know the difference…

The cast includes Michael Madsen as the Gent (no academy award winning performance here, but hey wtf) and Eric Balfour as Commanche. Those familiar with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels will recognize Vinnie Jones as Billy Wings. In addition, three parts are played by those from the golden age of biker films, including director Larry Bishop as Pistolero, president of the Victors MC. It’s worth the five dollar rental just to see Dennis Hopper riding an Indian sidehack, and David Carradine makes a cameo as The Deuce. We never know why he’s called The Deuce but really… does it matter?

There’s plenty of skin, plenty of great road shots, and much more graphic violence and language than found in its predecessors (though this simply speaks to its prevalence in contemporary film generally). There’s a great exposition of the legendary biker “wing patch” colour code, a few memorable quotes, ”Readin’ the situation exactly right, is how come I’m the prez”–and plenty of the three B’s.

Maybe it’s because I ride that I look at these movies with a slightly different attitude, but to those pretentious critics that see the film as pretentious itself somehow, I say jeez lighten up. It’s got all the right stuff. Rather than look back with nostalgia and attribute qualities that were likely never there to these exploitive Grindhouse films, just enjoy them for what they are. They were bad then and they’re bad now, but that’s what makes them enjoyable.

For some reason I feel I should mention here that I have actually studied film and genre at University level, as if it somehow qualifies my opinion in my defense of this film. It is really beside the point I’m making though. This movie just makes me want to put some crazy Z-bars on my bike. And swear a lot. MMM

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