The Movie Waffler New Release Review - THE BIKERIDERS | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - THE BIKERIDERS

The Bikeriders review
A Chicago biker gang heads down a dark path of violence.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jeff Nichols

Starring: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Boyd Holbrook, Damon Herriman

The Bikeriders poster

Have you ever seen any of those awful British movies about football hooligans that seem to be released straight to VOD on a weekly basis? You know the type. They always star some combination of Danny Dyer, Craig Fairbrass and Tamer Hassan, sometimes all three. The directors always try to emulate Goodfellas, but their attempts to use voiceover to draw us into a world of pathetic masculinity always come off as lazy storytelling. Most of these movies open with a scene in which the protagonist finds himself cornered by some rivals, and the frame freezes just as he takes a punch to his mush, followed by some sort of exaltation along the lines of "You're probably wondering how a geezer like me got myself in such a norty pickle."

The Bikeriders review

With The Bikeriders, Jeff Nichols seems to have borrowed this tiresome template and swapped out the football hooligans for a 1960s Chicago biker gang. It has the same sub-Scorsese storytelling and the same half-assed interrogation of why men need to form a gang to justify hanging out with other men. It opens with a freeze frame of a lead character taking a shovel to his noggin. And of course it features the obligatory angry wife who at some point will scream "I can't live like this no more" while her hubby insists that she can't understand why he needs the buzz.

The angry wife here is Kathy (Jodie Comer), who finds herself hitched to surly and silent biker Benny (Austin Butler), an improbably pretty member of the Vandals motorcycle gang. Nichols charts how the gang is formed when leader of the pack Johnny (Tom Hardy) catches a showing of The Wild One on TV and becomes besotted by Brando's rebellious biker. Hardy has long been compared to Brando, both favourably and unfavourably, so it's amusing to see him play  a character who is literally emulating the star. We go on to see how the gang grows, with various offshoot chapters around the American MidWest, and how violence seeps in when a new breed of angry and addicted young men arrive home from Vietnam. The latter is represented by a character simply named "The Kid", who is played by the charismatic young Aussie actor Toby Wallace and is basically a rehash of John Leguizamo's "Benny Blanco from the Bronx" of Carlito's Way, the violent young buck who carries a grudge when he's disrespected by the elder figure he looks up to, which in this case is Johnny.

The Bikeriders review

Nichols' film is inspired by a coffee table book by photographer Danny Lyon, who is played here by rising star Mike Faist. Over the '60s and '70s, Lyon conducted numerous interviews with bikers and it's one such interview with Kathy that provides the film with its framing device. It's an odd choice to make Kathy the sole narrator rather than allowing Benny to also have his say as it means we only get her perspective, which often amounts to the viewer being lectured on what they should take from the events presented; it's like if Goodfellas were narrated solely by Lorraine Bracco's character and we didn't get Ray Liotta's take. Kathy describes her initial seduction into this leather clad world, but she turns sour too quickly. Unlike Goodfellas, which lures us into the world of gangsters through an adrenalised focus on its glamourous side, The Bikeriders never lets us see through Benny's eyes, so we're never sucked in. For all of both Kathy and Johnny's doting over him, Benny is barely present; we hear about him more than we see him. He's so devoid of personality and charm that we wonder what Kathy and Johnny see in the dullard. Kathy's narration is too often lazily deployed to set up scenes, a tactic that annoyingly tells us what's about to happen before we see it actually happen. It's a baffling way to tell a story.

While few of the cast members look like they belong in this rough and tumble world, certainly not the cherubic Comer, it's nonetheless filled with engaging performances. Wallace enlivens the movie every time he pops up, and you might come away wishing he had swapped roles with Butler. Comer's bizarre attempt at a MidWest accent is initially disarming, but despite neither looking nor sounding the part, she's always engaging. Hardy does another of his trademark funny voices, but like Comer, he makes it work and he's very convincing as a dumb guy who thinks he has everything sussed. Norman Reedus is fun as a Californian biker in the Easy Rider mould and Nichols regular Michael Shannon adds some much needed humour as a crazy Latvian.

The Bikeriders review

If you're hoping for some insights into biker culture you'll have to look elsewhere (might I suggest George A. Romero's Knightriders?), as it's simply window dressing here. You could swap out the bikers for Italian mobsters or English soccer yobs and it would make little difference. As window dressing goes however, it's always visually appealing, as Nichols does a fine job of capturing the era without ever resorting to shortcut signifiers like news reports of Nam or race riots on background TVs. The roar of the engines and the crunch of leather will likely reel you in during its opening scenes, but the thrill soon wears off. If Nichols' film at first resembles '50s Brando, all taut muscles and charisma, it ends up more like '90s Brando, a bloated, mumbling reminder of what might have been.

The Bikeriders is in UK/ROI cinemas from June 21st.

2024 movie reviews