Review: All the actors shine in 'The Bikeriders'

A picture is worth 1,000 words -- and sometimes a terrific movie.

June 21, 2024, 4:02 AM

A picture is worth 1,000 words -- and sometimes a terrific movie. That's the case with "The Bikeriders," now in theaters, where you can revel in the skill shown by indie writer-director Jeff Nichols ("Mud," "Take Shelter") in shaping a classic photobook into full-throttle cinema magic.

The book is Danny Lyon's 1968 photo collection, "The Bikeriders," whose iconic black-and-white images of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, coupled with short interviews, inspired an "Easy Rider" counterculture that Nichols brings to roaring life on screen in radiant color.

OK, the club never called itself the Vandals, but who's complaining about tweaks to reality as our narrator Kathy, played by British dynamo and "Killing Eve" Emmy winner Jodie Comer, finds herself in a heated triangle with pack leader Johnny (the great Tom Hardy, Mad Max himself in "Fury Road") and tousled, tattooed newbie Benny (vividly realized by "Elvis" sensation Austin Butler)?

Jodie Comer as Kathy in "The Bikeriders."
Courtesy of Focus Features

Kathy and Benny meet in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout. "Five weeks later, I married him," says Kathy. And you can see why. Benny is never fully seen in the Lyon book, he's just talked about constantly. That adds a layer of mystery that Butler fills like the true movie star he is.

Always lurking is Johnny, grooming Benny to be his successor and maybe something more intimate. Hardy, so great as the Jewish gangster Alfie in "Peaky Blinders," nails the conflict in Johnny as a husband and father who still sees himself as the biker loner that Marlon Brando indelibly embodied in 1954's "The Wild One."

It's a setup for disaster. The Vandals aren't fake dangerous, they're the real thing, rumbling, drugging and executing enemies. Kudos to Nichols for finding the boredom between the action when the Vandals have too much time to think how their real lives can't match the fantasy.

Lyon is also in the mix in the person of breakout star Mike Faist ("Challengers," "West Side Story"). The photojournalist is invited into the gang, er, club, where he digs into the lives of such Vandals as Cal (Boyd Holbrook), Zipco (Michael Shannon), Cockroach (Emory Cohen) and California recruit Funny Sonny (the reliably fab Norman Reedus).

Jodie Comer as Kathy and Austin Butler as Benny in "The Bikeriders."
Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features

All the actors shine, though the focus remains on the vintage bikes and how the characters feel when they're riding. The cool factor is off the charts. And since the actors wouldn't be wearing helmets, so was the risk. Plot? Nichols doesn't deliver much in that department. He simply puts actors in a hothouse of soaring intensity and waits for emotions to blow.

That they do. Propelled by a killer soundtrack from Cream ("I Feel Free") to Gary U.S. Bonds ("I Wanna Holler (But the Town's Too Small)"), "The Bikeriders" vrooms like energy unleashed.

Over nine years of Kathy's immersion with the Vandals, Nichols builds a startling contrast between this female force of nature who wears her heart on her sleeve and these biker dudes who pride themselves on keeping feelings locked inside.

It seems only fair that the visuals tell the story, especially with actors who know how to let their faces and bodies speak volumes in the spaces between words. Nichols runs black-and-white photos from the Lyon book over the end credits, mostly to capture a vibe that distills an era. "I wanted to feel like I did when I saw the photos," says the director. Mission accomplished.