Friday, April 15, 2011

Faded Old Biker

Even if you’re a biker film fan from way back, I’d recommend staying away from Larry Bishop’s Hell Ride.

The story is that Quentin Tarantino, director and frother for all things in genre cinema, was introduced to Larry Bishop by an actress of mutual acquaintance. Larry is the son of comedian Joey Bishop and has an acting history prominent in biker gang films during their heyday, later appearing in other films as a character actor, and directing a mob film that is considered one of the worst ever made.

But Tarantino loves him for his biker filmography, particularly Savage 7. So after a home screening, he tells Larry that he (Larry Bishop) is destined to make the ‘greatest biker film of all time!’. So Larry rounds up some actors he likes, gets a few of Tarantino’s regulars, and some wannabe porn actresses and cranks out a film with himself as the star.

I think it has fallen well short of that ‘greatest’ thing.

Biker films are one of the few ‘genre film’ genres that I have almost no real experience with. I’ve seen Easy Rider and Hell’s Angels On Wheels, so I’ve had my brush with the royal triumvirate Hopper/Fonda/Nicholson, but that was a long time ago.

And the whole biker gang ethos (uh, actually the cinematic version of it, I guess) never really grabbed me. I just can’t identify with it, even though metalhead fashion (and therefore MY dress sense) is influenced heavily by biker culture. I don’t really know how authentic or relevant those old films were, I just knew when I saw them that they were a product of their times and I got reasonable enjoyment from the nihilistic attitudes and scenery-chewing on display.

Hell Ride has nihilism with a weird sense of honor in the protagonist, and just plain boring bad acting in place of scenery-chewing. Dennis Hopper and David Carradine are both in the film and are probably the best part about it, though neither is brilliant… Carradine only getting about two minutes of screen time. Dennis actually gets some of the best lines in the movie, but he is basically playing himself… so there you go. He’s just as funny in the DVD extras.

Director Bishop is probably trying to tap into some of… whatever it was that Tarantino liked so much in Savage 7, but he just didn’t do it for me. Scratchy voice, fake tan, weird sideburns. It is a fair difference from the real Bishop, who you can see in the extras, but I wouldn’t call any of his performance good.

Tarantino regular Michael Madsen is in the film and was probably my main draw for ordering it up on my NetFlix queue. The reality having watched the film is decidedly mixed.

I think Madsen CAN be really good, but he requires direction. From an ‘real director’. So you get these cool things from him in Tarantino movies or Tony Scott’s True Romance (dialogue by Tarantino). The film is also thick with speech that tries to emulate Quentin’s wordy cleverness, but fails miserably most of the time… and the few times it does work it's typically Hopper or Madsen delivering. But Madsen is really inconsistent. I was alternating between ‘cool’ and ‘yeesh’ practically every other line he uttered. Quentin’s dialogue in movies is usually hip upon a film’s release, but kind of ages badly upon subsequent viewings. The lines in this movie have that spent hipness from the onset. Like your listening to shit that would’ve been clever 20 years ago.

That might be the problem with a lot of the movie. On the one hand it is trying to tap into an attitude and an ethos from the past. On the other it is trying to marry them to present-day trappings and sensibilities. The movie is set in 2008, though you don’t see cell phones, computers, or soap-shaped automobiles. All this is mushed together with some artistic choices taken from the grindhouse cinema of the 70s. I don’t really know if biker films were a staple in grindhouses. You’d think it’d be a great fit.

But in Bishop’s hands it is just awkward. Not nearly as enjoyable as similar excursions Death Proof (Tarantino) or Machete (Robert Rodriquez). In the Special Features section Bishop talks about how he could and did take the movie to extreme places that a release in the 60s could never go, but the violence and sex aren’t particularly graphic or shocking even for a grindhouse feature from the following decade. The only thing I noticed was all that extreme compared to its inspirations was the number of times the f-bomb was dropped.

Grindhouse cinema attracted moviegoers because the audience thought they’d be seeing something you couldn’t see in films shown in mainstream theaters. Being so low budget you weren’t going to get exotic settings, great actors, or eye-popping special effects.

Usually it was exploitative subject matter, frequently coupled with bouncing nudity. If you were particularly lucky there might actually be an act of graphic violence shown that no big budget picture would stomach. Getting all of that together (untouchable subject, nudity, uber-violence) as in I Spit On Your Grave, you basically got the trifecta of grindhouse and would probably leave the theater genuinely shocked or affected.

When Robert Rodriquez made Planet Terror a few years ago, he knew that audiences were going to want an experience that made them feel like an audience felt in the grindhouse era, but that the ACTUAL grindhouse material would not be enough. There’s material on broadcast television now that is sleazier and a bigger train wreck than 90% of what appeared corner theaters. All the tropes, stereotypes, film tricks, etc from seedy grindhouses can be in place but if you don’t take into account all the sensory and information overload that has taken place since then… your film will be dull and underwhelming.

And that’s basically what happened with Hell Ride. It is kind of struggling to catch up and BE a shocking, impactful picture. There are a few good moments in it. Hell, I’ll even say making a biker gang movie that isn’t a period picture is probably pretty daring. I’m not even sure the characters in the movie have real-world equivalents on any level. I’ve seen bikers, but are there still ‘gangs’? Do they still carry on their anarchic criminal pursuits? I dunno!

If the movie was entertaining or even shocking in any way, I might want to Google around and find out. But it wasn’t and I don’t.

RIP David Carradine and Dennis Hopper.

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