Gorgeous 'Bikeriders' has tankful of insight about glamour, tedium of a motorcycle gang

Tom Hardy, Austin Butler, Jodie Comer star in drama with the look of ‘60s and ‘70s indie films.

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Austin Butler goes for a brooding James Dean persona as a motorcycle gang member Benny in "The Bikeriders."

Austin Butler goes for a brooding James Dean persona as a motorcycle gang member Benny in “The Bikeriders.”

Focus Features

Some two decades ago, the writer-director Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter,” “Mud,” “Loving”) picked up a copy of Danny Lyon’s 1967 book titled “The Bikeriders,” which focused on the Outlaws Motorcycle Club that was founded in southwest suburban McCook, Illinois. For years, Nichols tooled around with the idea of the book serving as inspiration for a fictional feature film — and it finally comes to fruition with the gorgeously shot and star-studded “The Bikeriders,” which plays like “Goodfellas” on two wheels, with heavy influence from “Easy Rider” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” as well.

Filmed in a kind of grainy style reminiscent of indie films from the late 1960s and early 1970s, “The Bikeriders” is set in and around the Chicago of the 1960s but was filmed primarily in the greater Cincinnati region, and quite frankly looks like it was filmed primarily in the greater Cincinnati region. (Adding to the stylized weirdness, which somehow works because everything about this movie has a kind of hazy, dreamlike quality: The decidedly non-Chicago accents affected by the greatly talented actors who play the three main characters. More on that in a moment.)

The framing device has a fictionalized version of Danny Lyon, played by Mike Faist (“West Side Story,” “Challengers”), taking still photos and recording an oral history of sorts of the Vandals MC from the inside. (The real-life Lyons actually did this from 1963-67, predating Hunter S. Thompson and “Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga.”)

'The Bikeriders'

Focus Features presents a film written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Running time: 116 minutes. Rated R (for language throughout, violence, some drug use and brief sexuality). Opens Thursday at local theaters.

Tom Hardy delivers electric work as Johnny, a family man who has a full-time job as a truck driver but falls in love with the outlaw motorcycle life after catching Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” on TV. Hardy employs a high-pitched accent that makes him sound like a cross between Brando and somebody auditioning to voice a cartoon character, while Austin Butler goes for a brooding James Dean persona and mumble as the volatile and movie star-gorgeous Benny, who is Johnny’s best friend and always looks like he’s posing for a magazine photo. (Butler isn’t channeling his inner Elvis, but he sounds like he could be Elvis’ cousin. Who is not from Chicago.)

Truck driver Johnny (Tom Hardy) sits on a motorcycle in "The Bikeriders."

Truck driver Johnny (Tom Hardy) falls in with some motorcycle outlaws in “The Bikeriders.”

Focus Features

Other members of the gang, most of whom have nicknames straight out of “West Side Story” or “The Outsiders,” include the pinko-hating old hand Zipco (Michael Shannon) and the California transplant Funny Sonny (Norman Reedus), as well as guys known as Cockroach (Emory Cohen), Big Jack (Happy Anderson), Cal (Boyd Holbrook) and Corky (Karl Glusman). They’re a rowdy and unambitious bunch, spending endless hours drinking at the shabby corner bar that serves as their clubhouse, and then hitting the streets in formation, striking fear into the hearts of the locals and partying at “picnics” where fistfights and knife fights are always on the menu.

The de facto narrator (via those interviews with Danny) is Jodie Comer’s Kathy, a nice Chicago girl with a nice boring life who meets up with a friend at the clubhouse/bar one night and is repulsed by the gross, grabby Vandals — but also instantly taken with Benny, who basically wins her over before she even climbs onto the back of his bike.

Sidebar. Born in Liverpool, England, Jodie Comer has won Emmy and Tony awards and is one of the finest actors of her generation, but it’s jarring to hear her interpretation of a Chicago/Midwest accent. Kathy sounds like Kristen Wiig doing an exaggerated Wisconsin accent on a comedy sketch show; it’s so over the top, so mannered, that it unfortunately detracts from the performance. It’s not that Comer is terrible; I don’t think she could be terrible in anything if she tried. There are moments when Kathy carries the day as arguably the only grown-up in a room filled with overgrown boys who would rather spend time with each other than their wives and girlfriends, but oh my, that accent.

Jodie Comer sits on a porch looking away from the camera.

Jodie Comer’s bizarre attempt at a Midwestern accent detracts from her fine performance as a Chicagoan in love with Benny.

Focus Features/

Other than an unhinged monologue from Zipco about how he wanted to fight in the Vietnam War but was rejected (good decision, U.S. military), the all-white, middle-class Vandals seem utterly oblivious to the times in which they’re living; they’d clearly prefer to live, fight and raise hell in a 1950s bubble. They’re not hardcore criminals, at least until later years when the club’s membership spreads to multiple cities and spirals out of control, but they are emotionally stunted Peter Pans who are obsessed with talk of cylinder heads and crankshaft gearboxes and pistons, with getting drunk and getting into brawls, with hitting the open roads. That’s the extent of it.

Writer-director Nichols does a skillful job of paying homage to the glamour and bad-boy appeal of motorcycles and motorcycle movies, but also illustrating that while these guys are the stuff of feature films, in real life you’d most likely grow tired of their company after yet another day of drinking and petty crime. Kathy might not yet realize it, but the day she met the magnetic but aimless Benny might not have been so magical after all. Such is the beauty, and the tragedy, of “The Bikeriders.”

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