Review: ‘The Bikeriders,’ starring Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist and Norman Reedus

June 18, 2024

by Carla Hay

Boyd Holbrook, Austin Butler and Tom Hardy in “The Bikeriders” (Photo by Mike Faist/Focus Features)

“The Bikeriders”

Directed by Jeff Nichols

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in the Chicago area, from 1963 to 1973, the dramatic film “The Bikeriders” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman struggles to keep her marriage intact as her husband gets more involved in a motorycle gang called the Vandals. 

Culture Audience: “The Bikeriders” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and history-based stories about motorcycle gangs.

Mike Faist and Jodie Comer in “The Bikeriders” (Photo by Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features)

“The Bikeriders” could have been a typical macho movie about a gang, starring actors who are much better-looking than the average gang member. This gritty drama has a lot of predictability, but it avoids some clichés by having a female narrator for an otherwise very masculine film about a violent gang. Jodie Comer gives a standout performance in the role of the movie’s narrator/chief protagonist, who tells the story of this dangerous and dysfunctional American gang from her perspective. “The Bikeriders” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, “The Bikeriders” is inspired by photojournalist Danny Lyon’s 1968 non-fiction book “The Bikeriders,” which chronicled Lyon’s four years as a member of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club. The movie takes place from 1963 to 1973, with the story told in non-chronological order. Some viewers might be confused or annoyed by this timeline jumping. The gang at the center of the story is the fictional Vandals, which began in Chicago and eventually expanded to other cities throughout the Midwest. (“The Bikeriders” was actually filmed in Cincinnati.)

“The Bikeriders” structures the narrative by having it in the context of former Vandals insider Kathy (played by Comer) telling the story of the gang to a journalist named Danny (played by Mike Faist) during a series of interviews in 1973. The movie then has several flashbacks to Kathy’s life as the girlfriend and then wife of Vandals member Benny Cross (played by Austin Butler), who becomes increasingly unstable and at risk of dying while he’s in the gang. Kathy is the only substantial female role in the movie. All the other women in with speaking roles in “The Bikeriders” get very little screen time and mostly portray friends or acquaintances of Kathy.

Benny is a typical brooding outlaw, who doesn’t talk much about his past. However, Benny is clear about one thing: He has a passion for motorcycle riding, even though he’s had too many motorcycle crashes by any standard. Benny also has an arrest record, for things such as disorderly conduct, driving without a license, and resisting arrest. After he joins the Vandals, Benny will get involved in more serious crimes.

Benny, who has spent much of his life as a loner, finds camaraderie in the Vandals. The leader of the Vandals is a menacing brute named Johnny (played by Tom Hardy), who expects unwavering loyalty to the gang at all costs. And Benny is a very loyal member. The opening scene in the “Bikeriders” shows Benny getting brutally beaten up by two men in a bar just because Benny refuses their demands to take off his Vandals motorcycle jacket.

There’s a scene in “The Bikeriders” were Johnny says he was inspired to create the Vandals motorcycle club after seeing Marlon Brando in “The Wild One,” the 1953 drama in which Brando has the role of Johnny Strabler, the troublemaking leader of a motorcycle gang. It’s no coincidence that Johnny has the same first name as this iconic movie character. Hardy’s performance in “The Bikeriders” is obviously influenced by Brando’s performance in “The Wild One.” Benny and Johnny form a close friendship, in which Johnny becomes a mentor to Benny.

The other core members of the Chicago chapter of the Vandals are practical-minded Brucie (played Damon Herriman), who is Johnny’s right-hand man; easygoing Cal (played by Boyd Holbrook), who’s originally from California; eccentric Zipco (played by Michael Shannon), who was rejected when he volunteered for military duty for the Vietnam War; fidgety Cockroach (played by Emory Cohen), who is a family man; raggedy Funny Sonny (played by Norman Reedus), who asks to join the Vandals; and best friends Corky (played Karl Glusman) and Wahoo (played by Beau Knapp), who are like the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the Vandals. There’s also an ambitious younger gang member, who is just called The Kid (played by Toby Wallace), and he has a pivotal role in the story.

When Kathy tells the story of the Vandals from her perspective, she is at various times sassy, jaded, nostalgic or heartbroken. “The Bikeriders” follows her journey from being relatively straight-laced and naïve about gang life to becoming so involved in gang life, it becomes very difficult for her to leave, out of fear of getting assaulted or killed. Most of the conflicts in her marriage to Benny are about how she wants him to leave the Vandals, but he stubbornly refuses.

The first time Kathy meets Benny, it’s 1963, and he’s playing pool at a bar that is a regular hangout for the Vandals. Kathy and Benny lock eyes in the way that people do in a movie that makes it obvious that they’re eventually going to get together. Benny and Kathy exchange the type of banter where they’re intensely attracted to each other but they want to play it cool.

And the next thing you know, Kathy is on the back of Benny’s motorcycle while they ride around town. Kathy says in a voiceover about the first time she rode on a motorcycle with Benny: “I have to admit, it took my breath away.” Benny is portrayed as a scruffy and tough James Dean type, who constantly has to prove to others that he’s more than just a pretty face.

At the time Kathy meets Benny, she already has a live-in boyfriend named David (played by Michael Abbott Jr.), who’s about 10 years older than Kathy. But Kathy’s relationship with David doesn’t stop Benny from pursuing Kathy. After Benny drops Kathy off at her house on the first night they meet (which is the first time an annoyed David sees Benny), Benny decides he’s going come back later and wait across the street for the entire night and part of the next day to see Kathy again.

This stalking would be a red flag for a lot of people, but Kathy is charmed and thinks it shows Benny must really be into her, even if she thinks Benny is a little unhinged and obsessive. These personality traits also apply to how Benny feels about the Vandals. Eventually, there comes a time when Kathy wants to choose between her and the Vandals.

Benny doesn’t have to say a word to David or get in a fight with David to literally drive David away. There’s a scene where David is very unnerved by seeing Benny waiting across the street, soon after Benny met Kathy. David storms into the house, has a brief but angry argument with Kathy, and then announces to Kathy: “We’re done!” David drives off in his truck with his possessions and is never seen in the movie again.

Kathy in 1973 is then seen smirking when she tells journalist Danny about what happened next between her and Benny: “Five weeks later, I married him.” The rest of “The Bikeriders” shows the ups and downs of the marriage of Kathy and Benny as he becomes involved in deadly crimes with the Vandals. The movie shows the expected fight scenes and gang rivalries.

The Vandals open up chapters in other cities (Milwaukee is mentioned the most), but Johnny has difficulty managing so many different chapters as the overall leader of the Vandals. Johnny doesn’t really want to admit he’s losing control of a rapidly expanding gang with various agendas, but other people see flaws in Johnny’s leadership, so there are inevitable power struggles. A few gang members occasionally challenge Johnny to replace him as the leader of the Vandals. Johnny gives these challengers a choice to fight him with their fists or with a knife.

“The Bikeriders” doesn’t have a lot of surprises but can maintain viewer interest because of the talented cast members’ performances. Comer and Hardy (who are both British in real life) have accents in this movie that will get different reactions. Comer’s Midwestern twang sounds very authentic and actually makes her plain-spoken, often-sarcastic storytelling have more resonance. Hardy (who’s doing yet another role as a mumbling tough guy) has an American accent that sounds a lot more contrived, although at this point Hardy has mastered the type of character who looks like he could hit someone and hug the same person within a span of seconds.

Butler’s depiction of Benny isn’t outstanding, but it’s not terrible either. Is he convincing as a gang member? The scenes where he’s on a motorcycle or being a “bad boy” lover to Kathy are better than his scenes where he’s in gang-related fights. Benny could have easily been the narrator of “The Bikeriders,” but writer/director Nichols wisely chose to avoid such a predictable perspective. Benny’s obsession with the Vandals is a hint that there’s a huge void in Benny’s life that isn’t fully explained.

It’s perhaps the biggest flaw of the movie: Benny is just too mysterious. He’s not exactly a gang member with a heart of gold, but the movie wants to keep people guessing until the very end: Is Kathy or the Vandals gang the one true love of Benny? The answer comes at the end of “The Bikeriders,” which isn’t a groundbreaking movie about motorcycle gangs but it’s satisfying enough for people who want to see a version of gang life with people who mostly look like Hollywood actors.

Focus Features will release “The Bikeriders” in U.S. cinemas on June 21, 2024. A sneak preview of the movie was shown in U.S. cinemas on June 17, 2024.

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