Blowin' Smoke

Biker Boyz is furious, but it's not fast, which is a real drag

Jan 29, 2003 at 4:00 am
First off, make no mistake: Biker Boyz is not, and has no intentions of being, The Fast and the Furious on two wheels, which will be considered a serious shame by the members of the twelve- to twelve-year-old demographic who were hoping to chug a little more Diesel fuel before the official sequel's release this summer. F&F had nothing going for it, save director Rob Cohen's lethal addiction to huffing and puffing nitrous oxide; Cohen, a former studio nerd retooled like a junker getting its last shot at the Indy 500, at least figured out if you had tricked-up Dodge Chargers moving at the speed of sound the pre-teens wouldn't notice there was no there there.

Biker Boyz, more or less (more less, really) about rival motorcycle clubs in Los Angeles and the tensions that mount when newbies rise up against their mentors, keeps its foot on the brakes and barely makes it to the finish line, where it literally ends, at a finish line, like all movies about the Big Race, the Big Showdown or the Big Breakthrough. There's no kick to its bag of tricks -- loads of wheelies, front and back, and that's just the camera dolly -- and you want to be kind and say it's all revved up with no place to go, but more likely the movie's running on fumes siphoned from every other movie about Things That Go Fast and the People Who Drive Them.

Ostensibly (by which I mean barely) based on a same-named April 2000 article that appeared in this publication's now-defunct sister paper New Times Los Angeles, Biker Boyz feels like the kind of movie Tom Cruise used to make back when he was working through his Daddy Issues in film. The most obvious jumping-off point is Days of Thunder: Kid rebels against Mentor in shadow of Dead Pa, which sounds like everything from Top Gun to Cocktail to Magnolia, come to think of it. Already Derek Luke, star of Antwone Fisher, is in danger of lapsing into Cruise control in films in which he has profound parenting issues. Only Luke's Kid (his character's actual nickname) has to overcome two father figures: the mechanic who raised him (Eriq La Salle, in an uncredited cameo) and the biker boss who won't let the Kid out of his sight or shadow (Laurence Fishburne, bulked up like Ray Liotta's narc). Just see whether the Star Wars twist halfway through doesn't have you muttering to yourself, "Derek Luke, I am your father"; it did everyone else in the theater during an early preview, when they weren't giggling.

All that remains from Michael Gougis' article are a few names and a couple of scenes, including the Fresno dragstrip where men work out their competitive issues ten seconds at a time (more, actually, considering the slow-mo). The piece has been stripped and retrofitted to look like a Fox TV pilot decorated with MTV talk-show hand-me-down sets. (You half expect an episode of Fastlane to break out, and not just because the Kid's pale partner in hustling, Brendan Fehr, looks exactly like TV's Peter Facinelli.) Gougis' protagonist was Miguel "Pokey" Galloway, a 42-year-old king of the road nearing the end of his ride, and you saw the world through his glazed and sunken eyes, all the races and chases and fights and funerals. Here, he's renamed "Smoke" Galloway, which is what he's reduced to: Fishburne's Galloway is a bit player in his own story, easily made to disappear with a wave of the hand. We know nothing about him, save that he screws around too much (his fallback is Lisa Bonet, now looking chiseled to the bone) and that, as the so-called "King of Cali," he can't be beat, least of all by Kid Rock as head of the rival Strays. It's up to Fishburne to flesh out the outline given him by novice writer Craig Fernandez and director/co-writer Reggie Rock Bythewood, but you can't carry something lighter than air.

Bythewood couldn't figure out what he was making: a Peter Fonda biker B-pic or a drama in which fathers and sons made their peace on strips of gravel. The director, best known for his short stint on A Different World, has so burdened the film with romantic and domestic issues -- the Kid's being tugged at by his disapproving mom (Vanessa Bell Calloway), his Romeo and Juliet instant girlfriend (a barely clad Meagan Good, playing a rival's little sister), his new and ever-growing posse, not to mention Smoke and the ghost of a daddy -- that to make it feel at all kinetic or even just half-awake, Bythewood resorts to cheap trickery. He whips the camera around as though it's attached to a rubber hose, snakes it in between monstrous and shiny bikes that all look the same, distorts the picture whenever we're supposed to be looking at the track from Smoke's point of view and injects copious montages of still images and grainy footage set to bangin' beats. It's a mild one among biker pics, a tricycle only pretending to be a hog.