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The Bikeriders

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Reviewer

Paul Asay

Movie Review

The club was built on steel and chrome, leather and denim; the growl of the engine, the smell of gasoline and beer and freedom.

Yeah, maybe it came with a whiff of rebellion, too: a dash of Brando from The Wild One, a smattering of bloodied knuckles and black eyes. A ticket for disturbing the peace? A night in jail? Sure, that’d come with its own dollop of bragging rights. But Chicago’s Vandals Motorcycle Club was, at first, all about the bikes: How they looked, how they rode, how they felt.

“Everyone wants to be a part of something,” Brucie tells Danny, a college kid documenting the Vandals in 1965. “That’s what this is.”

You could call Brucie the club’s Chief Operating Officer, the gang’s head lieutenant. But no one doubts where the real power sits. That’d be with Johnny, the club’s founder and one of the toughest cats around. A handful of guys—Zipco, Wahoo, Cockroach and the rest—have been with Johnny from the beginning.

But no one—maybe not even Johnny himself—is as devoted to the club as Benny. Everyone loves the club, but Benny lives it. His bike might as well be part of his body. His club jacket—his colors—might as well be tattooed to his torso. He lives for the club and the freedom it represents. He’d die for it, too.

And that makes his girl, Kathy, a little crazy at times.

Kathy doesn’t love bikes. She doesn’t care for the whole biker vibe. No, she’s there for Benny. “It can’t be love,” she admits to Danny in 1965. “It must be stupidity.”

For nearly a decade, into the 1970s, Kathy serves as the primary translator for Danny—the photographer and author documenting the Vandals—regarding the inner workings of the club. And she describes how it grows and changes. From its modest Chicago roots, the Vandals club spread throughout the Midwest. And with that success comes new members, new ways of doing things, new pressures. New evils. Blood flows more readily. The influence of booze and drugs grows. Younger bikers look at Johnny and wonder if he’s worn the crown for too long.

Everyone wants to be a part of something, Brucie says in 1965. In 1973, that’s still true. But what they are part of now looks far, far different.

Positive Elements

Yeah, the Vandals are about the bikes. But they’re also about loyalty. Love of motorcycles might’ve brought these disparate folks together, but their dedication to one another keeps them there.

And even though Kathy jokes that “stupidity” keeps her in Benny’s circle (and thus the Vandals’ circle), her own loyalty and devotion run pretty deep, too. When Benny suffers a serious injury, she’s the one who cares for him and cautions him about getting back on his bike too soon. She vies with the Vandals for Benny’s veritable soul—out of love and concern for his well-being. And even as Vandals members use her house as a hangout, she still does what she can to be a good neighbor.

Spiritual Elements

A funeral is held in a church. We hear a passing reference to St. Christopher’s Day.

Sexual Content

Kathy’s introduction to the Vandals comes when she meets a friend (who’s dating a member) at a local hangout. She sees loads of guys in vests without shirts, and she tells Danny, “To me they was, like, half naked.” And plenty of them are drawn to Kathy, too, boldly pawing at her and touching her rear. (She tells Danny later that there were “handprints all over me.”) But Johnny tells her that he won’t let anything happen to her, and when Kathy climbs on the back of Benny’s bike, the untoward advances stop for several years.

One catch, though: Kathy already has a boyfriend, with whom she’s living. When Benny drives Kathy home that first evening, he spends the entire night sitting by his bike in front of her house. About 24 hours later, the intimidated boyfriend leaves, never to return. Five weeks later, Kathy and Benny married.

We see several women connected to the Vandals hug and hold various members, often riding on the back of bikes. Sometimes the outfits can lean a bit risqué. Someone takes offense when he believes someone’s calling him a “queen.”

At a Vandals party, a woman in a tight red dress dances sultrily in a home filled with gang members. Someone tells Kathy how nice she’d look in that dress, and Kathy admits that she’d like to try it on. Later in the party, Kathy’s handed that same dress: The man handing it to her says the woman who was wearing it “took some fellas upstairs,” and she won’t be needing it anymore.

The saga of that dress isn’t over, however. We’ll deal with it in the next section.

Violent Content

[Spoiler Warning] Kathy does put on that dress. And after Benny leaves the party, things get out of hand quickly. Several gang members try to pull her upstairs (Kathy later finds out that members were told that the woman wearing the dress was open and available), with Kathy clinging to door frames and screaming for help. Johnny violently puts a stop to the attempted gang rape, but it understandably leaves a deep impression on Kathy. She confesses to Benny that, if they’d succeeded in dragging her upstairs, she would’ve killed herself.

The Vandals were never, of course, a pacifistic motorcycle gang. When someone challenges Johnny for Vandals leadership, the two engage in a formal fight—during which Johnny breaks the other man’s finger. (We see the digit splayed grotesquely at an unnatural angle.) When members of another club confront the Vandals (alleging that one of the members scratched a bike from the rival gang), Benny flies in and punches someone repeatedly in the face. (Later, bloodied members from both gangs swap stories as Benny massages his bandaged knuckles.)

But the violence gets more extreme with time.

In one pivotal instance, someone gets into a fight with two guys who don’t like Vandals’ “colors.” Plenty of punches are thrown. A character is kicked. Someone gets smacked in the back with a bar stool. A knife slices open the face of an assailant. And the fight culminates with someone nearly having a foot cut off with a shovel (off-camera).

And while we mentioned the gang members’ loyalty as a positive early on, sometimes loyalty in these sorts of gangs is brutally enforced. One visitor comes to Chicago looking for an old gang member of his who never gave up his old colors, and he had been directed to hurt the turncoat badly. Another club member drunkenly admits he plans to quit the gang, and he’s nearly beaten to death.

Others lose their lives. One is killed in a fatal motorcycle crash. (We see the impact and some blood.) Another is shot and killed. A couple of people are essentially executed—shot in the back of the head. Kathy tells Danny that over time, she believes the gang was increasingly involved in murder.

Elsewhere, bikers get into a handful of fights. A man gets shot in the leg. A guy prepares to beat his wife with his belt; another man uses that same belt to nearly strangle the husband. A dish hits someone in the back and breaks. A teen smashes a car headlamp (intimidating the driver). A tavern is purposely set on fire and left to burn to the ground.

Crude or Profane Language

About 85 f-words, more than 20 s-words and one extremely vulgar reference to oral sex. We also hear “a–,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—” and “p-ssed.” God’s name is misused at least five times, four with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused thrice.

We should also note that one of the patches most Vandals wear on their jackets depicts a raised middle finger. (We see a couple of flesh-and-blood fingers raised similarly as well.)

Drug and Alcohol Content

The Vandals have always had a propensity to drink heavily, and we see plenty of evidence of that habit: Characters often seem tipsy or outright drunk. But Kathy says that as time went on and new members joined the Vandals, drugs also became a part of the gang’s transgressive culture.

We see a character shoot up something at a party—presumably heroin. Others smoke marijuana. Kathy mentions that cocaine was widely used, too. She also adds that the Vandals began running and dealing in drugs.

It seems as though most interior scenes take place in the inside of bars or at drunken house parties.

Other Negative Elements

Benny earns some Vandals’ props after leading police on a sprawling chase through Chicago and the surrounding farmland. (The chase ends when Benny runs out of gas, and he’s eventually cited for 18 traffic violations.)

Kathy says most of the Vandals are actually afraid of any real confrontation: They’re happy to be charged with disturbance of the peace occasionally, but they don’t want to pick up any felonies. That appears to change with time. When the Vandals burn down a building—and then stay to watch it burn—police and firemen watch, too … afraid to intervene.

The Vandals enjoy intimidating more respectable citizens—a trait that endears them to even less-savory wannabes. But they can be respectful, too. When one of their members dies, and club members are forbidden by family to join the funeral itself, they line the walkway to the church, standing in silence. The grieving mother stares at Johnny and spits in his face.

We see some kids stealing hubcaps. Characters ride with suspended licenses.

Conclusion

I wrote earlier that the Vandals gang was built on a number of things: chrome and leather and loyalty and such. But it was built on something else, too: paradox.

The Vandals’ members were loners who formed a tight, near-unbreakable family. Kathy notes that they despised any law or rule—until they formed the club. Then they wrote up plenty of rules for themselves, and they increasingly adhered to those rules with the passion of a pharisee. The Vandals loved their freedom. And yet, within the bonds of the gang, many ultimately found themselves virtual prisoners—unable to shake free of its constricting culture, unable to change its trajectory.

Maybe there’s a spiritual lesson in there: When we, in our very human ways, seek freedom outside of Christ, we find ourselves imprisoned by our own human desires and failures. When we submit to Him, we—again paradoxically—find ourselves free.

But The Bikeriders doesn’t really go there, so we’ll leave it at that and focus on the movie itself—a movie that can feel a teensy bit like West Side Story, but with a lot less dancing and a lot more swearing.

And language isn’t the film’s only problem. The violence can be extreme and is, at times, unremitting. The way women are treated here is often abysmal. And if you’re looking for a film that lauds law-abiding citizens … well, this ain’t it.

The Bikeriders takes us into a culture with which few of us are likely personally familiar. But the film doesn’t seem to have much more reason for being than simply that: There are no broader themes in play, nothing to think about afterward.

It is, perhaps, like a ride on the open road on your Harley or Indian in a driving snowstorm. Sure, the trip theoretically has its pleasures. But in reality, it’s kind of a slog.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.