`Biker' is out of control

Movie Review

January 31, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Bristling biker movies from the Brando vehicle The Wild One in 1954 to Richard Rush's Hell's Angels on Wheels in 1967 drew on published studies of rebel subcultures and torn-from-the headline incidents - and brought new breeds of cyclists to the screen with cutting-edge attitudes.

The Wild One, based on Frank Rooney's The Cyclists' Raid, fictionalized the incident of 4,000 bikers taking over the small town of Hollister, Calif. Rush patterned Hell's Angels on Wheels on Hunter S. Thompson's nonfiction book Hell's Angels and even used Sonny Barger as a technical adviser.

Biker Boyz, too, takes off from journalism, but it winds up a bogus, stilted extravaganza. Michael Gougis' April 2000 article of the same name from the now-defunct alternative weekly New Times Los Angeles told of African-American motorcyclists who for decades have turned racing into a way of life as codified as medieval knighthood. Individually, these riders span the contemporary social spectrum from grimy garages to sleek offices. But as bike club members, they mirror the motorcycle Camelot of George Romero's 1981 film Knightriders.

The chief bike group in this movie is called the Black Knights. But the way writer-director Reggie Rock Bythewood and co-writer Craig Fernandez have re-imagined this scene, it's like Dodge City in a Wild West comic book and is used as a backdrop for the oldest tale in the vast history of pulp. It's the one about the towering gunfighter who defends his reputation against the young sharpshooter making a name for himself.

Laurence Fishburne plays the reigning champ and Black Knights president, known as "the King of Cali"; Derek Luke, from Antwone Fisher, plays "Kid," who aims to knock the King off his throne. The biking guru Kid knew as his father (Eriq LaSalle, sans credit) served as the King's mechanic and right-hand man and died in a freak accident. Kid blames the King, unfairly, for hogging his old man's attention and not acknowledging the crucial import of his wisdom.

So Kid starts his own groundbreaking club, the Biker Boyz - proudly multiracial, dedicated to new tricks and determined to show up the Black Knights. There's only one psychological switcheroo in the whole well-worn narrative; too bad it will have audiences, reviewers and headline-writers around the world riffing on Derek Luke's Kid and Luke Skywalker.

Bythewood knows what he wants to do: He stages the entrances of proud Knights and upstart Biker Boyz like ranch gangs swarming in epic horse operas. In case anyone misses the point, he makes one character a fan of a Western-shootout video game.

But he conceptualizes the life out of the material. All the actors can do is glare, puff out their chests and pump up the volume as they spout comic or dead-serious challenges and putdowns - that is, when they're not getting all jokey or steamy with their love-mates.

The sole actor who shows more than one dimension is Orlando Jones as Soul Train, the Black Knights' cheerleader and insult comic and the smart, cool lawyer who, when needed, gets them out of jail. Why didn't Bythewood reveal more of the bikers' double lives?

Perhaps he feared real-world intrusions would wreck the live-action comic book he was staging in his head. Of course, comic-book genre movies demand their own visual and dramatic discipline - as Walter Hill demonstrated triumphantly in his gang film The Warriors. Yet on the evidence of Biker Boyz, Bythewood lacks any of this discipline. There's no sinew or consistency and thus no cumulative strength to his imagery.

Biker Boyz never gives you a front-row seat at a race from start to finish. Bythewood keeps intercutting vivid details without sorting them into a coherent whole. His most garish ideas land with a thud. He depicts the King's tunnel vision literally, turning the road in front of him into a long, curved chamber.

Bythewood shoots breathtaking stunts, like riders strapping metal plates to their shoes and striking sparks on the asphalt, without making the fireworks build to a thrilling pyrotechnic climax.

However you pronounce Bythewood - I assume it's by-the-wood - his work here is strictly by the numbers.

Biker Boyz

Starring Laurence Fishburne and Derek Luke

Directed by Reggie Rock Bythewood

Released by DreamWorks

Rated PG-13

Time 111 minutes

SUN SCORE * 1/2

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