Bikeriders, The (United States, 2023)

June 21, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Bikeriders, The Poster

The Bikeriders is notable not because of anything in the story but because of the approach to acting embraced by lead actors Tom Hardy and Austin Butler, who have consciously attempted to recreate the essences of Marlon Brando and James Dean in their performances. For those who might wonder what film critics mean when they say that an actor “channels” the work of a previous performer, one need look no further than this film for an explanation. Unfortunately, the scattershot narrative, which moves along a bumpy and uneven trajectory, doesn’t represent the greatest showcase for this sort of exercise. Watching The Bikeriders, I kept hoping it would get better but it never really does. There are moments when it ratchets things up but it almost immediately falls back, unable to sustain the momentum.

The Bikeriders takes its inspiration from Danny Lyons’ book of the same name, with Jeff Nichols using the framing device of Lyons (Mike Faist) interviewing one subject, Kathy Bauer (Jodie Comer), at different times during her involvement. Nichols’ goals are expansive: he wants to depict the motorcycle culture of the ‘60s and show how it changed as it moved into the ‘70s while simultaneously giving life to the three protagonists: Kathy; her handsome, brooding husband, Benny (Butler); and the leader of the Chicago Vandals Biker Club, Johnny (Hardy). He is only partially successful on all counts. The awkward structure of intercutting action with faux interview segments doesn’t help.

A central problem with The Bikeriders relates to using Kathy as the viewer’s entry-point into the world of the Vandals. Not only is she a weak character but Jodie Comer is miscast (her performance is adequate but the awful accent is a distraction). The screenplay wants to develop a love triangle of sorts among Kathy, Benny, and Johnny. The husband-wife relationship never percolates, leaving behind the tepid bromance between Benny and his mentor.

The story chronicles, with middling effectiveness, the shift in the biker culture that occurred when angry, disillusioned Vietnam War vets started joining, swelling the numbers but also bringing along a dark element. Like the mob during roughly the same timeframe, drugs and violence became dominant factors. “Clubs” became “gangs.” The story spans a little under a decade, from about 1965 until 1973. Kathy meets Benny at a bar; five weeks after their first encounter, they are married. From the beginning, Benny is pulled in two directions. Kathy wants him to give up biking – a desire that is heightened after a violent confrontation in which he nearly loses a foot – while Johnny wants to groom the younger man as a successor. As the years pass, we meet other members of the Vandals (none of whom are developed), including mechanic Cal (Boyd Holbrook); Zipco (Michael Shannon), who is so unstable that he was deemed unsuitable to join the army; the insect-chomping Cockroach (Emory Cohen), who dreams of becoming a motorcycle policeman; and Funny Sonny (Norman Reedus), a California transplant who sticks around because he likes the vibe. There’s occasional violence, a few parties, and a growing sense that the young guns are taking over by any means necessary.

Nichols nails the era and brings along the cinematic style of the late-‘60s/early-‘70s to emphasize the time period. The movie has some great moments. One, which bookends the first act and has Benny standing up to a couple of aggressive bar patrons, is shocking and graphic. Another, which borrows the stark, no-frills approach that Martin Scorsese used in Goodfellas to show the murder of Joe Pesci’s character, eliminates sentimentality from one particular death.

The thing that fascinated me the most about The Bikeriders was watching Hardy attempting to resurrect Brando and Butler doing a decent Dean impersonation. Although both actors had their greatest successes during the 1950s, it’s not hard to imagine them doing this sort of movie had circumstances been different. I still wonder, however, why an actor of Michael Shannon’s stature, agreed to appear in such a stripped-down role. Shannon has one good scene but spends the rest of the film lounging around in the background.

It's strange that such an oddball movie would get a wide release during the heart of the summer season. This is at best an autumn film, if not something better suited to one of the dumping months. I’m uncertain who the intended audience is (members of the Hardy or Butler fan clubs?) and it’s hard to fathom why The Bikeriders didn’t take the fast lane to streaming, which is where one assumes it will end up a few weeks after its theatrical debut. It’s a passable production with some interesting performances but the bumpy screenplay and uneven pacing keep the audience at arm’s-length and limit the effectiveness of the narrative.

Bikeriders, The (United States, 2023)

Run Time: 1:56
U.S. Release Date: 2024-06-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Drugs)
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1