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The Bikeriders (2024)

This is a terrific-looking ode to 1960s motorcycle gangs, and I’m not just talking about Austin Butler’s brooding good looks.
Our Rating

Genre(s): Drama, Crime

Director: Jeff Nichols

Actors: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy

Year: 2024

MPAA Rating: R

Country: USA

I love the idea that writer-director Jeff Nichols was so transfixed by a book of 1960s counterculture photojournalism that he was inspired to bring the photos back to life in a narrative movie. The book, The Bikeriders by Danny Lyon, featured photographs and interviews of a Chicago motorcycle gang in the mid to late 60s (with a 1973 prologue), capturing them posturing, partying, brawling, and riding. Though the characters in The Bikeriders, the movie, are fictionalized interpretations with dramatic arcs, you can what a cool, inspired idea this was when you finally see some of the original images flash through the closing credits.

Austin Butler as golden boy biker Benny gets a great intro: He sits alone at a bar with his tousled blonde hair, his black leather jacket showing the “colors” of the Chicago Vandals biker club on his back, a glass of whiskey in front of him, and a smoldering cigarette in his hand. We immediately learn that Benny has a propensity for violence that will inevitably catch up to him. But Benny IS extremely pretty, so it is understandable that when Kathy (Jodie Comer with a wild Chicaaaaago accent) seemingly walks into the wrong bar one night to see a friend, she immediately falls for his long lashes and bad boy aura.

Kathy not only falls for Benny, but for the thrill of the biker lifestyle. Kathy serves as our narrator (she’s being interviewed by a nameless photojournalist played by Mike Faist), which allows the biker gang to be introduced through the eyes of an outsider. We learn that Benny rides with the Chicago Vandals, a scrappy group of guys led by Johnny (Tom Hardy), who was inspired to start a club after seeing Marlon Brando’s The Wild One on TV. Many of these restless, hard-partying guys have jobs and families, but are outsiders that crave a pack where they can belong. Fights and brawls involve fists or knives, but usually end with a shared beer and devoted brotherhood. But as the film goes on, and the 60s turn to the 70s, the vibe gets meaner and more dangerous. As the Vandals club grows to other Midwestern cities it turns into a bonafide biker gang, with younger, newer members bringing harder drugs and more violence (fueled by trauma from Vietnam). As the outsider, it’s Kathy sees the downward spiral and danger in the gang long before the others realize it is no longer fun and games.

While strong-yet-troubled Tom Hardy is the soul of the movie and Jodie Comer is the spicy, no-nonsense heart, Austin Butler is more of a cipher as Benny and he actually fades in interest, even disappearing for part of the story. Benny’s essentially the right angle in a love triangle between Kathy, Benny, and Johnny, who sees Benny as the only true heir apparent to take over the gang. Kathy knows that she’s in a battle for Benny’s devotion, and knows that she will probably always lose to Johnny. Outside of Benny’s good looks (and his pitbull devotion to the club), it’s a little baffling to see why both Johnny and Kathy put all their hopes in this shifty character. Benny is actually one of the least interesting people in the film, partly because he is underwritten, and maybe also because his character is described as emotionless—waiting for him to crack doesn’t really pay out as the filmmaker probably hoped.

Perhaps unsurprising given its inspirational source, this is a terrific-looking movie. The cinematography is gorgeous (often set up to match the real photographs) and the gritty bikers look as greasy, shaggy, and filthy as you imagine they should be. (Wait until you see the initially unrecognizable Norman Reedus show up as a scraggly California biker with a smile full of extremely bad teeth.) While it never pretends to be a docudrama, The Bikeriders narratively feels like a slice of a few years in the life of a motorcycle club. It depicts a seeming golden age of biker gangs: a time when guys fought with fists not guns, and an early death meant a biker probably simply got in a motorcycle accident.

 

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