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The Bikeriders review - beer, brawls and Harley-Davidsons | reviews, news & interviews

The Bikeriders review - beer, brawls and Harley-Davidsons

The Bikeriders review - beer, brawls and Harley-Davidsons

Austin Butler is leader of the pack in Jeff Nichols' biker-gang bonanza

Riders on the storm: Austin Butler and Jodie Comer

The best-known book about motorcycle gangs is Hunter S Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, a classic foundational text of the so-called “New Journalism”. It was published in 1966, two years before Danny Lyon’s The Bikeriders, the source material for Jeff Nichols’ new movie. Lyon (now 82) was primarily a photographer, but in this case accompanied his pictures with interviews with his subjects.

Lyon didn’t just get close to the members of Chicago’s Outlaws Motorcycle Club, he became one of them. He recalled how Hunter Thompson “advised me not to join the Outlaws and to wear a helmet. I joined the club and seldom wore a helmet". Lyon appears in The Bikeriders, played by Mike Faist as a rather green college student gathering material for his planned book. In particular, it’s his conversations with Kathy (Jody Comer) which help to shape the narrative, as the gang – renamed The Vandals – work their way through the latter part of the 1960s and start wondering what the point of it all is.

Kathy’s relationship with the charismatic Benny (Austin Butler) is at the core of the story. Benny is the classic rebel without a cause (for which Butler’s unmistakeable James Dean aura doesn’t hurt a bit), and Nichols grabs a quick trick by dropping in a glimpse of Marlon Brando’s famous moment from The Wild One: “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” “Waddaya got?”

Butler, who has now played starring roles as Elvis Presley and a casually heroic B-17 pilot in Masters of the Air, seems to be cornering the market in great American archetypes. We first meet Benny as he fearlessly throws himself into a potentially suicidal brawl with a pair of bar-room thugs who have taken a violent dislike to his customised Vandals leather jacket.

Ineffably cool and existentially oblivious to mortality in its various forms, Benny is an almost spectral presence, and Kathy recognises him as a soulmate with scarcely a sentence exchanged between them. His seduction technique is to take her for a fast ride on the back of his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and then wait outside her house all night until her existing boyfriend decides he has no choice but to leave.

His gang-mates are rather less superhuman, and without Butler’s glamorous presence this movie would be fighting a losing battle. Still, Michael Shannon (pictured above) and Norman Reedus add some dramatic light and shade, while Tom Hardy (pictured below) delivers a rock-hard performance as Vandals founder Johnny. A rarity among his ragged band of homies in that he has a regular job (he’s a truck driver, though we only ever see him on a motorbike), Johnny has a vision of his team as a source of strength and comradeship.

However, for the most part, the group amounts to a sad depiction of the American working-class male as a chauvinistic lunkhead with the emotional intelligence of a John Deere tractor. The largely anonymous wives are left to languish in subservient roles at home while the menfolk play with their hard-revving toys, drink too much beer and get into fights. Foregrounding Comer’s role was presumably to counterbalance this surfeit of dismal dudes.

Billions of words must have been expended on analysing the historical and psychological dimensions of America’s post-war biker-gang culture, but director Nichols doesn’t really go there. Where The Bikeriders falls short is in its frustrating vagueness about the unfolding social and political scenery in this intriguing phase of American history. There are tangential references to the Vietnam war, and how its shell-shocked veterans have introduced heroin into the American bloodstream, while the way the biker gangs evolved into brutal crime syndicates involved in drugs, prostitution and murder gets a brief mention as a postscript. There’s still plenty to like here, but there could have been plenty more.

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