On the 30 January Today Show, Laurence Fishburne rolled up on his motorcycle. He and his mini-crew of bikers revved their engines and wore colorful leather jackets; after a little chitchat, Fish presented host Al Roker with a jacket of his very own. Happy as all get-out, Al tore off his overcoat and tried on the new gear, turning his back to the camera so everyone in tv-land could see that he was proudly promoting Fishburne’s new movie, Biker Boyz.
In fact, as Fishburne noted during his two minutes on air with Al, he rides, for real. Noting that the film is inspired by a particular bikers’ subculture—highly competitive, organized, and proud—Fishburne explained that the community is “predominantly black, but they don’t exclude anybody.”
This detail says something about how Biker Boyz was made and how it’s being marketed. Loud and rowdy as it may be, the film is plainly designed to appeal across demographics, with a range of (many) performers (Fishburne, Derek Luke, Orlando Jones, Lisa Bonet, Kid Rock) and a range of narrative elements (action, comedy, melodrama). Thematically, it looks backward and forward at once: back to old school Westerns (the aging hero confronts the young gun) and forward to the next logical step in the genre most raucously represented by The Fast and the Furious. Drawing from video games, extreme sports, the WWF, and Saturday morning cartoons, these new-fangled flicks are short on character complexity, long on incredible visual display—spinning camerawork, digital timing (as in “bullet”), and thrilling stunts enacted by busty girls and buff guys.
Based on a New Times article by Michael Gougis and scripted by Craig Fernandez, Biker Boyz is also careful to respect its sources, showing the bikers in their various glories—they’re not boozing smackdown hooligans, but lawyers, husbands, doctors, and what we might call venerable women (see, for instance, Half and Half, played by Salli Richardson, tough chick extraordinaire—who garnered applause from the biker club audience with whom I saw the film every time she appeared on screen). They’re also energetically multi-racial, which makes them of a piece with recent action film casts: The Transporter, The Matrix, The Scorpion King and anything Vin Diesel (a one man multi-culti cast).
This latest version of the smash-action adventure is plainly designed to appeal across multiple communities—gendered, raced, aged, and classed. The story involves father and son conflicts, youthful passions, elder responsibilities, and inter-gang competitions. Possible larger frameworks—legal or social—only exist on the edges, to make bike racing slightly difficult (at one point, faceless cops bust up a match; in another, offscreen authorities make the bikers move their contest from a safe raceway to a farmer’s dirt road). For the most part, the bikers live in their own world, in Southern California—drinking, zooming, posturing, popping wheelies, getting intricate tattoos, and riding into all kinds of sunsets.
The central narrative involves Fishburne’s renowned biker, Smoke, and a young upstart named Jaleel (Derek Luke). The latter’s father, Slick Will (Eriq La Salle), is Smoke’s mechanic, and the kid (whose nickname is, apparently significantly, Kid) resents that he appears to do whatever Smoke says and Smoke, leader of the Black Knights Club, gets all the public respect and glory. When, in one of the first scenes, his father is killed in a freak accident (he’s not even riding), Kid briefly drops out of the scene to reassess. He returns, of course (“Six months later,” reads the helpful title), to challenge Smoke to a Big Race. This against the noisy resistance of his mother, Anita (Vanessa Bell Calloway), who tells him that in the ER, where she works, they call bikers “organ donors.” This point about the risks of biking is certainly made in the first brutal death scene, and a sign of Smoke’s maturity is his realization that there are more important things to do than win races.
Still, he’s initially distracted by persistent mini-challenges from bikers like Dogg (Kid Rock), who tends to bump opponents off the track. Meanwhile, Kid has his own obstacles to overcome, namely, the rules of the biker set. To get access to Smoke, first he has to put together his own crew, in order to rise to the level of legitimacy, so he starts a club with his buddies Stuntman (Brendan Fehr) and Primo (Rick Gonzalez). Visibly “diverse,” this trio attracts a next generation of bikers to their organization: the first two newbies are Filipino, played by real life brothers Dante and Dion Brasco. Clever, gifted, and brash, these kids are quick to mount outrageous stunts, daring their elders to keep up.
The basic Western structure—Kid and Smoke’s rivalry—makes for a predictable plot trajectory: Kid will learn some lessons, “King of Cali” Smoke will have to face his own demons, Anita will reveal a secret, and Kid’s bodacious girlfriend, Tina (Meagan Good), will show some skin. It also grants the proceedings traditional emotional weight. (It helps that Luke, of Antwone Fisher fame, and other participants are solid performers—no Paul Walkers here.) Most often, the film’s emotional tensions take the form of soap operatic close-ups (Bell Calloway most definitely carries these scenes).
That’s not to say that everyone has a decent role; some characters feel like they’ve been cut, rather cruelly. Terrence Howard, Djimon Hounsou, and Tyson Beckford have about two or three minutes on screen each; designated troublemaker Wood (Larenz Tate) picks on Kid and sparks a fight; and, as Smoke’s infinitely patient current squeeze, Queenie, Lisa Bonet spends too much time gazing up at her big-chested man.
Director Reggie Rock Bythewood (who made the sharp tv-industry breakdown, Dancing in September) keeps the pace pumping (at least until the predictable end). The images alternate between ostentatious titillation shots (tracking short-shorted girls or showing cleavage, especially during the Black Knights Bikini Bike Wash), high-octane racing images (some mutating into blurry-edged “tunnel vision” POV frames, suggesting the rider’s otherworldly concentration), and dramatic domestic scenes (handheld, intimate, poignant).
Amid all the conventional movie dazzle, Biker Boyz‘s most important idea is the bike. However you read it, as a sign of freedom or aggression, individuality or conformity, potency, masculinity, and/or beauty, the bike is broadly mythic, proudly ritual, absolutely immediate and material. It looks great in the stunts and trick shots, and its on-screen speed is downright visceral. What’s remarkable about this film is that, at last, the bike’s power and appeal are granted to a “predominantly” black, multi-racial group of folks who “don’t exclude anybody.” And that’s radical.