Fast and Furious Formula Re-Cycled
By Patrick Reed
Biker Boyz is pure formula, pure ephemera-now you see it, soon it’s gone, get it while it’s hot, give ’em what they want. You can keep spewing out the clichés on and on to infinity with movies like this one. Hey, let’s face it, pop flix for gearheads are an institution in this gas-guzzling, status symbol land, and have been since the 50s; trace a line from “Whattaya got?” Brando in The Wild One and drag-racin’ Dean in Rebel Without A Cause on through the counterculture era (Captain America’s chopper in Easy Rider, pre-Baretta Blake in Electra Glide in Blue, Warren Oates, aka “GTO,” in Two Lane Blacktop) and to enduring 70s icons such as the Bandit’s black Trans Am and Hazzard County’s General Lee. The 80s brought forth Tom Cruise in air (Top Gun) and on oval pavement (Days of Thunder), but the assembly line dried up a bit during the 90s, for while the American mainstream fully embraced hip-hop as the dominant cultural currency of the new millennium, the ever-expanding NASCAR universe largely remained (and remains) Wonder-bread white.
Given this drought, the summer 2001 sensation Fast and the Furious took a lot of people by surprise; the modestly-budgeted street-racing movie turned a hefty profit and torqued Vin Diesel and his Keanu-Reeves knock-off co-star Paul Walker on to further mindless filmic mayhem (XXX and the upcoming Fast and the Furious sequel, respectively). Looking back, Fast and the Furious’ success is easily explained: the filmmakers simply added urban flavor into a rote storyline, cast a bunch of good-looking non-actors, and most importantly, strictly adhered to the prime commandment of the automotive genre: the hunks can glower and flex all they want, but the machinery gets true top billing onscreen, dammit.
Biker Boyz re-cycles the formula further into the contemporary hip-hop zeitgeist. Based on an article by Michael Gougis (from the recently-folded alternative weekly Los Angeles New Times), Biker Boyz delves into the underground world of Southern California black motorcycle clubs, and uses this subculture as the setting for an oh-so traditional generational conflict. The film opens as Smoke (Laurence Fishburne), the heralded “King of Cali,” successfully defends his title at a nocturnal race meet in the middle of South Central. Tragically, his victory is marred by the accidental death of his long-time mechanic (ER’s Eric LaSalle), which shocks the entire rebel-racing community and sends the mechanic’s son, an apprentice rider nicknamed Kid (Derek Luke, currently starring in Antwone Fisher) into self-imposed exile. When Kid returns, he’s ready (so he thinks) to challenge Smoke’s supremacy, and to prove it he assembles a teenage racing clique called Biker Boyz to rival Smoke’s Black Knights gang. That’s the setup, and the rest of Biker Boyz’s plot can be summarized by simply recalling any hundred or so mentor-protégé movies. The stage is set: Kid vs. Smoke for the motorbike crown, and despite several plot twists and ulterior motives, the suspense gauge remains stuck on E throughout, a problem that becomes especially grating as the film labors on and on to the final, mano y mano contest.
So Biker Boyz must compensate with non-plot elements, i.e., individual performances, soundtrack, visuals, etc. Writer-director Reggie Rock Bythewood wrote the engaging script for Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus and made his directing debut with the indie Dancing in September (a perceptive take on minorities in creatively stagnant Hollywood that aired on HBO). Here, he chooses some cool on-location sites and inserts some creative technical flourishes into the filming of the bike races, although the Fast and the Furious influences are always easy to detect. The soundtrack contains the requisite rap, but also some somber acoustic R & B (used well in a funeral scene) and a bit of actual rock and roll. This is perhaps utilized as a tip of the hat to self-proclaimed 21st century outlaw Kid Rock, who basically plays himself as a rival gang leader named Dogg and is but one of a huge roster of recognizable faces cast in Biker Boyz-others include Larenz Tate (Love Jones), Djimon Hounsou (Amistad), Lisa Bonet (The Cosby Show), Vanessa Bell Calloway (BET’s Oh Drama!), and Orlando Jones (the “7-Up guy,” Office Space). This movie was probably a helluva lot of fun to make, and it’s not excruciating to watch. Still, judged as a livin’ on the edge, bad-ass gearhead movie, the PG-13 Biker Boyz just isn’t gritty, dangerous, and authentic enough. The Boyz really are a bunch of kids; with their Rainbow-Coalition multi-ethnicity, acrobatic stunt-riding, and wussy yellow and black uniforms, they come across as the Saved By the Bell crew performing circus acts on souped-up mopeds, and one never gets the sense that cooler-than-cool Laurence Fishburne and his crew would share the same stretch o’ road with ’em in real life. Still, if you dig high-octane vehicular fetishism, and don’t mind turning the rest of your brain completely off for two hours (and don’t we all need that sometimes?), there are worse ways to spend an afternoon matinee.