Review: Strong cast, deft direction propels gritty gang drama ‘The Bikeriders’

Jodie Comer and Austin Butlerin The Bikeriders (Kyle Kaplan/Courtesy Focus Features)

Writer-director Jeff Nichols’ “The Bikeriders” might well prove to be the film of the year, if not at the box office then maybe next spring at the Academy Awards.

The film about outsiders finding community is unequivocally the best movie I’ve seen this year. Sorry “Dune: Part 2,” you’ve met your match. The movie was set to be released last December before being pushed until this summer. I hope Oscar voters will remember Nichols’ latest effort.

If you’ve not seen the Little Rock native’s film “Mud,” it’s an excellent small film shot and set in the Natural State, but “The Bikeriders” is better.

It is in no way a feel-good movie, but sometimes wallowing in the grit and the mire of a gruff crime drama has a certain appeal. The fictional story is inspired by Danny Lyon’s 1967 photo-book that gave the world a peek into the Illinois biker club’s exploits. Lyon is played by Mike Faist, who co-starred in “Challengers” earlier this year. His role is smallish but still key in this picture.

The film is grounded by Jodie Comer’s simmering performance as Kathy, a woman too willful to be trifled with. The slow-burning cool of Austin Butler as Benny, the object of Kathy’s affection and the sweaty machismo of Tom Hardy as Johny, the leader of the biker gang the Vandals sets up a non-traditional love triangle that is compelling. Kathy pulls Benny toward her, while Johnny sees Benny as his heir apparent as leader of the biker gang and makes demands of his own. The trouble-attracting Benny is not sure if his journey is with either of them.

Michael Shannon as Zipco and Norman Reedus as Funny Sonny excel in character roles as fellow bikers who join the gang and push their agendas while doing so.

This conglomeration of talent gives Nichols a potent and enticing set of ingredients that evokes the best of classic Hollywood while maintaining a necessary modern sensibility that makes the film rev at a high velocity.

Cinematographer Adam Stone bathes the film in golden sunlight in several shots, countered by deep blacks in some of the film’s most potent scenes. As hard as the film is, Stone’s lens paints a bold and handsome portrait.

The film has an epic sweep covering the early 1960s through the end of the decade, detailing the steady metamorphosis of a motorcycle club into a sleazy criminal organization. Nichols uses shots from the Marlon Brando classic “The Wild One” and the counter-cultural ode to freedom “Easy Rider” to bookend his story that centers around the triangle of Kathy, Benny, and Johnny. The plot is practically Shakespearian.

The movie has the feel of a Martin Scorsese production. It’s not unlike “Good Fellas” as it romanticizes biker culture while tearing it apart from the inside. You can’t help but relate to the fascinating characters that Nichols fills his film with, but you feel more than a little bit grungy doing so.

My only real gripe is Hardy affecting a squeaky voice that is somewhat similar to Brando’s but somehow reminiscent of the timber he used as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.” That choice asks a lot of the audience, but in the grand scheme, it’s not that big of a hurdle.

(R) 1 hr. 56 min.
Grade: A-

New in Local Theaters – June 21, 2024

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Favorite Films Year by Year (1979-75)

This period was a golden age of sorts for me. I was in elementary school, and any movie I got to see in the theater was a treat even though I went almost every weekend with friends to the $1 theater in West Memphis that had two screens. One movie would normally be rated R and the other film would be PG or G. This was before PG-13 was a rating, and when there were a lot more G- and PG-rated fare than there is today. Each Thursday in the summer, the theater played a free kiddie movie, sponsored by Fidelity Bank, which passed out punch cards that allowed you admission. If you had all the numbers punched on your card at the end of the summer, you got a free popcorn and soda pop at the last movie. I never had perfect attendance. Those screenings were wild. I remember seeing Westerns like “Big Jake” and “El Dorado” as well as “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Parent Trap,” and a movie called “The Doberman Gang.” They also screened a lot of live-action Disney movies from the 1960s. It was wild and fun with kids running up and down the aisles, throwing popcorn and even sometimes water balloons at each other. The floors were so sticky at that theater, you had to make sure your sneakers were tied tight so you wouldn’t lose them when they stuck to the floor..


Top Grossing and Oscar Winner: Kramer vs. Kramer
I have rewatched this film in recent years, and it’s a true heartbreaker that I think gets to the core of divorce, and its tragedy in so many cases. The film not only won the Oscar for Best Picture, but Robert Benton also won for Best Director and Best Screenplay, Dustin Hoffman won for Best Actor, and Meryl Streep won for Best Supporting Actress. Hoffman and Streep play a couple going through a bitter divorce and custody battle over their son. The film is excellent, but uncomfortable, made even more so by knowing that Hoffman allegedly harassed Streep throughout the filming, laying it off on him being a method actor. Not only did he break a wine glass against the wall in a scene, sending broken shards into her hair without her knowing he was going to do it, but in their first scene filmed together, he slapped Streep hard without a warning or her consent, she alleged. Maybe the performance was a little too method on Hoffman’s part?

My Favorite: North Dallas 40
Unlike baseball in which there are a score or more of good to great films on the subject, there just aren’t a ton of similar football movies. Since “Brian’s Song” wasn’t a theatrical release, “North Dallas 40” ranks as my favorite grid-ironed themed film released in theaters. A rather on-the-nose satire of the late 1960s and early 1970s Dallas Cowboys, the film has its hilarious moments, but it also features heart and regret as Nick Nolte’s aging receiver Phil Elliot comes to terms with the reality that his career is all but over because of his athletic decline and his off-the-field indiscretions. Football is a brutal game. It comes with pain and suffering on every level, but the hardest part is often when the grim reality sets in that you’ll never play the game you loved again.


Top Grossing: Grease
The only movie that I can think of that was more popular than “Grease” in my childhood would be “Star Wars.” The fact that so many thought it was so great somehow offended my little mind as a kid. I refused to watch it until probably the early 1990s. It was my loss, because “Grease” is a really fun movie. John Travolta was great as Danny and Olivia Newton-John was enchanting as Sandy. The movie is filled with fun songs and great dancing. It’s still not one of my all-time favorites, but I certainly understand why it is for many.

Oscar Winner: The Deer Hunter
Directed by Michael Cimino, “The Deer Hunter” is a soul-crushing movie about war and the struggle it inflicts on those who serve and survive. The film, which features several harrowing scenes of Russian roulette, was nominated for nine Oscars and won five, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken, Best Sound, and Best Film editing. The film is about the friendship of three men sent to war who face similar circumstances but brutally different outcomes. It’s not a feel-good movie in any way shape or form. The film earned critical acclaim and did well at the box office, but it was later criticized for the central plot point of the Viet Cong forcing captive soldiers to play Russian roulette, which evidently had no basis in fact.

My Favorite: Superman: The Movie
For me, 1978 was a great year for movies. “National Lampoon’s Animal House” would rank in my top 25 or maybe top 20 films of all time. “Every Which Way But Loose” is a top three Clint Eastwood movie for me, but “Superman: The Movie,” directed by Richard Donner is a top-10 favorite of mine. Christopher Reeve perfectly embodies the character of Superman. I’m not as big a fan of his Clark Kent, having grown up watching George Reeves portray Clark as a competent reporter rather than a joke on reruns of the old 1950s “Adventures of Superman” TV show, but the film gets so much right that I can excuse all of its issues. The helicopter rescue and Superman’s initial date with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) are standout scenes to me in this beautifully shot movie.


Top Grossing and My Favorite: Star Wars
Though critics weren’t initially unkind to the first film of George Lucas’ space opera, the ticket-buying public proved them wrong with this fantasy space adventure that was unlike anything the movie-going public had seen before. The movie introduced us to cryptic sounding characters like Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guiness), and heroes like Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and creatures and “droids” like Chewbacca, and C3PO and R2D2. Just as importantly, Lucas plastered the film’s name and the likenesses of the characters on nearly every item he could find, and modern movie marketing and licensing was created. In a very real sense, Lucas’ ode to the Flash Gordon serials of his youth recreated film-making and the film business like no other movie had before it. Better yet, the movie is still highly entertaining nearly 50 years later.

Oscar Winner: Annie Hall
Woody Allen’s off-screen life has made him a creepy character in pop culture. He’s married to a woman who is the adopted daughter of his ex-wife Mia Farrow, and Farrow has alleged that he sexually abused their adoptive daughter in 1992. Still he is a gifted director and writer. While I prefer “Zelig,” his film “Annie Hall,” is a well-made, humorous, and compelling romantic comedy-drama about love and love lost, co-starring Diane Keaton in her star-making role. The film won all four of the Oscars for which it was nominated, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay for Allen, and Best Actress for Keaton. It’s a wonderful movie, but knowing Allen’s issues, I feel icky watching it.


Top Grossing, Oscar Winner and My Favorite: Rocky
“Rocky” hit the trifecta as far as I’m concerned. It was the top-grossing movie of 1976. It was the Oscar winner for Best Picture in 1976, and it is my favorite movie from the Bicentennial of the United State’s birth. Heck, “Rocky” is cemented as one of my top-10 favorite movies of all time. John G. Avildsen won a Best Director Oscar, and the film also garnered Best Picture and Best Film Editing Oscars. Sylvester Stallone did not win, but he was nominated for Best Actor. Peter Finch won for his role in “Network.” Sequels to “Rocky” got sillier and sillier as the franchise went on. I enjoy those movies for what they are, but “Rocky” will forever be a classic in my book. Talia Shire gave the best performance of her career as Adrian. Burt Young is disgusting in a wonderful way as Paulie, Adrian’s brother and Rocky’s buddy. Carl Weathers basically played Muhammad Ali without being too on-the-nose as Apollo Creed, and Burgess Meredith was perfect as the crusty old trainer Mickey, who actually had a heart of gold. “Gonna Fly Now” is a terrific theme song. Who hasn’t hummed that theme in their head when they have been out jogging? Only a person who has never had the pleasure of seeing the film.


Top Grossing and My Favorite: Jaws
There is just something about the movies of the mid 1970s that I love. A lot of it, no doubt, is nostalgia. Those were my elementary-school years, and for better or worse my tastes haven’t exactly matured all that much. “Jaws” is a movie that thrilled and scared me. As dumb as it may sound, “Jaws” was my 6-year-old self’s impetus to switch from taking baths to showers. I figured I could get out of the tub quicker standing up than I could sitting down if the bottom did fall out and there just happened to be sharks swimming underneath like in a trap from a James Bond movie. Yeah, my imagination was wildly out of control. I was probably too young when I saw “Jaws,” but the movie remains a favorite of mine to this day. I’d argue “Jaws” is Steven Spielberg’s best film just ahead of “Schindler’s List” all these years later. Roy Scheider as Brody, Robert Shaw as Quint, and Richard Dreyfus as Hooper was phenomenal casting. The scenes where Hooper and Quint trade injury stories, and then Quit tells his version of the U.S.S. Indianapolis tragedy is riveting. It’s one of my favorite scenes ever committed to film. The movie is great. Writing about it only makes me want to watch it again.

Oscar Winner: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
I don’t have the same affection for this Oscar Winner, but I cannot deny that it is a great movie.The film nearly swept the major categories at the Oscars not only taking home Best Picture, but also Best Director (Milos Forman) Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), and Best Adapted Screenplay. Nicholson was already a star, but this film pushed him to the top of the A-List, and as good as he was as McMurphy, Fletcher might have been better as Nurse Ratched. What a hateful and horrid woman! The film is a psychological drama. It’s not a horror flick, but other than “The Exorcist” there’s not another scarier movie from the 1970s to me than “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”