I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man

a survey of summer movies that just didn’t catch on

August 23, 1991

Dump all the macho pop culture of the ’80s – movies, TV shows, music videos, beer and cigarette ads, wrestling – into a strainer, shake it around, and the chunks you got left are HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN, a buddy-action movie that plays at first like a satire of, but then maybe a tribute to, our basest ideals of masculinity.

It starts with a disclaimer that no, this is not affiliated with the two products it’s named after. The title characters are not supposed to be advertising mascots come to life, some weird meta thing like FOODFIGHT!. It’s tempting to think so, though, when you see them sitting on billboards, Harley (Mickey Rourke, DOUBLE TEAM) always wearing his patch-covered motorcycle jacket, Marlboro (Don Johnson, DEAD BANG) his cowboy gear, cigarette dangling from his lip (though he supposedly quit).

It’s more like it takes place in a pure world of action movie tropes. In the first 10 minutes there’s both an interrupted convenience store robbery and a bar brawl. (Marlboro, being a cowboy, has a disagreement with some Native Americans at the pool table.) They drive motorcycles and leave women naked in hotel beds without saying goodbye. They start in Amarillo and Colorado is mentioned but for the most part their whole world seems to be Las Vegas, L.A. and the dusty desert roads (and train tracks) between them.

Well, home base is technically Burbank. Their favorite bar (which is airplane and John Wayne themed) is getting gouged on their lease due to the brand new Burbank International Airport. That thing is tiny, but the movie treats it like the highways being built over Toon Town. Harley decides that he and the boys who hang out there need to rob an armored car to get the money to save the bar. Marlboro is a little hesitant, but gives in to the peer pressure I guess.

So they do it, but the money they thought they were stealing turns out to be bricks of one of those fictional super-drugs that movies like this have, and they spend the rest of the movie being hunted by bank employees with slicked back hair and extremely unflattering bullet-proof black leather trenchcoats that look like garbage bags.

It’s almost the Mount Rushmore of a certain type of sleazy macho actor of the era. I think Johnson is a little too handsome to count for this, but you got Rourke in the co-lead and Tom Sizemore as the head of the bank and Daniel Baldwin as the head of his goon squad. And as a bonus you got Robert Ginty flying a helicopter. The basic vibe of this movie is “guys who would write cowboy poetry about a particular strip club they like” or “guys who Sylvester Stallone’s line of limited edition pens would be marketed to.” One can assume that every actor in this movie has met members of Motley Crue. Fittingly, the opening credits are set to Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” and the motorcycles are so literally “steel horses” that Marlboro shoots his to put it out of its misery.

(As a side note, the tune is integrated well enough that I thought “Actually I kinda get why people liked this song now.” But I had recently discovered an unknown penchant for singing along to the “wanted” part from the dueling piano players at O’Sullivan’s on Beale Street.)

If that’s not enough celebration of lowbrow culture, they have a WWF wrestler in the cast (Big John Studd) and his wife Lulu is played by a singer who was fired from Miss America for being in Playboy (Vanessa Williams). Studd’s character has a grudge against Harley for trying to steal his wife, so they have a good fight (complete with body slams and other wrestling moves integrated into a bar/urban environment – shades of THEY LIVE) and then make up and he’s a big lovable teddy bear for the rest of the movie. He’s my favorite character. Wish he was in it more.

Williams doesn’t get to do much more than sing in the bar, but at least she’s not fought over after that. We can accept that she is happily married to Big John Studd and doesn’t have any interest in switching to Mickey Rourke.

Harley is a sober man who still loves this bar, and his biggest mistakes are made out of loyalty to the family that owns it (Julius Harris [MANIAC COP 3] plays “The Old Man,” Giancarlo Esposito [DO THE RIGHT THING] is his son Jimmy Jiles), so I forgive his ugly jacket and iron cross earring, which I know he wears because he thinks it makes him a biker, not because it’s a Nazi symbol. And as always Johnson’s ruggedly handsome cynical sweetheart schtick gives you someone to care about.

I know that pre-George Clooney there was a weird wall between TV and movie stardom (for example David Caruso was not allowed to leave NYPD Blue and become a movie star, no matter how good KISS OF DEATH was), but it’s still weird to me that someone as magnetic as Johnson wasn’t able to find purchase on the big screen. People just didn’t want to see him playing a character who shaves or wears socks, I guess. Maybe it’s for the best, because if he’d been a giant movie star he’d be playing generals in SyFy movies. Instead he can be a character actor in high quality roles like COLD IN JULY.

Anyway, they go on the run, they have shootouts, hide in an airplane luggage compartment, jump off a tall building into a swimming pool (do not ever do this). It’s too routine to live up to the heightened world we started out in (note: Studd’s character is named Jack Daniels, Marlboro has a girlfriend named Virginia Slim and another character is Jose Cuervo) so we mostly just have their charisma to keep us going. But that’s just enough.

Australian director Simon Wincer, who would follow this with his big hit FREE WILLY and would re-appear in this review series if I hadn’t already reviewed THE PHANTOM or CROCODILE DUNDEE IN LOS ANGELES. This is the first screenwriting credit for Don Michael Paul, the actor from DANGEROUSLY CLOSE and ROLLING VENGEANCE who later directed HALF PAST DEAD and KINDERGARTEN COP 2. I suspect he was going for a Shane Black/Joel Silver heightened action movie type of vibe, but it didn’t catch on like LETHAL WEAPON. It got terrible reviews and made back less than half its budget at the box office. Wikipedia claims “it became a cult classic following its release to video,” which seems a little overstated to me, but it’s a modestly enjoyable formula with some extra flare. I liked it.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
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74 Responses to “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man”

  1. I highly recommend that you see Kindergarten Cop 2 so you can report back the time line because it’s confusing.

  2. Hope you realize that you now have to eventually do a review of THE COCA-COLA KID to complete the ’80s-movies-named-after-products duology…

  3. Just when I think I can’t love these Summer Fling reviews any more than I already do, Vern, you go and look at one of my all time (misunderstood) faves.

    Corny and old-fashioned? Yup. But that’s part of it’s charm.

    So much to like here, that even when the cheese gets heavy, the sincerity of this one, the heart of it, pull it through.

    And the cast, too – just so great.

    As the world continues to get shittier, this one resonates more and more.

    (Coincidentally, I re-watched the MIAMI VICE pilot last night and yeah, it’s still awesome. So much of it has been so well and truly copied to death that people coming to it now will very probably see it as derivative. A Bit like JOHN CARTER).

  4. You cant compare John Carter to the Miami Vice pilot.

  5. Personal favorite right here. I suspect that somewhere in the development process there was a hell of a satirical script that depicted an America so lost in the fog of capitalism that its only remaining outlaws were literally named after corporations, which would have been fine if Albert Pyun had directed it for about a buck eighty-five and it had starred Jan Michael Vincent and Michael Dudikoff, but once they got those two studs onboard everything had to get much more expensive and straight-down-the-middle. Still, there’s enough weirdness left to satisfy, and it’s got some great lines and action beats. There’s also all the stuff that the Wachowskis apparently stole for the MATRIX, like Neo’s black combat frock and the attack chopper vs. office building climax. It also taught me what the word “dilettante” meant, so it’s educational, too.

    I think they missed an opportunity to call Sizemore’s character Chase Manhattan, but nobody’s perfect. If every summer had one of these gems hiding in it, the world would be a better place.

  6. That movie was one of those, that I was fascinated with from child- to adulthood, without having seen it. Just because I thought the title was interesting and the clip of it that I saw on TV, where the black coated killer squad jumped over a burning motorcycle without flinching, was the coolest thing that my 9 year old eyes ever saw.

    When I finally saw it in my 30s, I was a bit disappointed, that it didn’t match my childhood expectations, but recently I feel the urge to revisit it. I would Casper it immediately, if I wouldn’t be so tired right now.

  7. Sternshein – Certainly not in terms of content, no, but they both did so much before everyone else.

  8. The Undefeated Gaul

    June 1st, 2017 at 12:33 pm

    I haven’t seen this in over two decades, but when it just came out I loved it and rented it at least three or four times over the span of a couple years. On one hand I really want to revisit it and see how it holds up, and how much I remember, but on the other it’s probably one of those “not as good as 12 year old you thought it was at the time” type films.

  9. No mention of the odd choice to set it in the near future of 1997?

  10. the winchester

    June 1st, 2017 at 1:19 pm

    “I suspect that somewhere in the development process there was a hell of a satirical script that depicted an America so lost in the fog of capitalism that its only remaining outlaws were literally named after corporations, which would have been fine if Albert Pyun had directed it for about a buck eighty-five and it had starred Jan Michael Vincent and Michael Dudikoff,”

    Holy crap, Majestyk, I need to see this movie. Right. Now.

    I remember being super psyched to see this one, as it seemed to have everything I loved in a movie at the time (I was 12). And it got a scathing review in our local paper, and my dad opted not to see it. 3 weeks later, he would have no problem going to the 78 glorious minutes of Showdown In Little Tokyo, but somehow, this was where he drew the line.

    Anyway I remember finally catching it (and taping it) on Showtime and being a little underwhelmed. Mostly because I was hoping for a Blade Runner-esque future, not the “near-future” that adds a laser sight to a gun and calls it futuristic. (Looking at you, Nemesis).

  11. I have waited years for this review. What a pleasant surprise.

    “Williams doesn’t get to do much more than sing in the bar, but at least she’s not fought over after that. We can accept that she is happily married to Big John Studd and doesn’t have any interest in switching to Mickey Rourke.”

    When I first saw this as a kid I was well a kid so my first thought was “no way she doesn’t go back to one of the most handsome muthafuckas on the big screen today I mean she is one of the baddest [meaning good] women walking it’s only right”. Then Studd’s character ends up stealing the movie and showing that he genuinely loves her and protects her and well dammit let’s just say HARLEY DAVIDSON & THE MARLBORO MAN taught me a thing or two about bucking social expectations when it comes to matters of the heart and I haven’t been a shallow observer since. For that alone this movie will always occupy a special place in my heart.

    Also the king of DTV Baldwins trying to look as in control as possible in what I’m sure was a tremendously uncomfortable outfit to wear in what seemed like hot ass weather (I mean not just a leather jumpsuit but with a high collar!) is pretty damn commendable. He and his henchmen took one for the team for the sake of our entertainment. Daniel Baldwin is a saint for that.

    One of my favorite scenes is the hotel roof scene. It seems like every other buddy action movie from GUNMEN (which to it’s credit has an equally inspired Patrick Stewart dangles Christopher Lambert off a helicopter scene) to the one with Damon Wayans and Sandler and FLED with Larry Fisburne and the other DTV Baldwin tried to equal that at some point but it just didn’t have the same genuinely playful camaraderie and spark of chemistry like the Rourke and Johnson scene. Also props to Fred for pointing out another thing that made this a favorite back in the day. So it’s supposed to be the near future but it’s not some near future that looks like what you’d expect 25 yrs later to look like a lot of other movies. No it was a near future where it’s like “the late 90s won’t be all that different from the early 90s” and damn it it was also the one near future that proved itself true. I loved the practical simplicity of it all.

    This review series has been pretty stellar. Never expected this one to pop up to be perfectly frank.

  12. Fred – I didn’t catch that. When did they say that? I did forget to mention the billboard for a future DIE HARD sequel (5 I think?)

  13. I’ve always loved this one. It’s maybe the last time Rourke bothered to be cool on the screen. And Simon Wincer has always been one of my favourite western directors. They could have put Robert Ginty to better use, though.

  14. I wonder if this is where Johnson and Ginty met? (Ginty went on to direct a few episodes of Johnson’s NASH BRIDGES).

    Yeah, the “1997” thing is odd – not very far away at all at the time to be seen as “the future”.

    The opening scene with the DJ talking about how fucked the ozone is, and being amazed that we haven’t all nuked each other yet, it clearly should’ve been set in 2017.

  15. Williams pictures showed up in Penthouse not Playboy.

    Surprised you didn’t write more about Baldwin and his gang, the whole long black leather coat and guns thing was quite out there…at the time…though obviously less stylish than later takes on the look.

    Baldwin was also a bit more winky about the vibe of the movie, even more than Rourke.

  16. karlos, what I was really saying is that the pilot of Miami Vice is really well done but John Carter sucks but I get your point ..maybe. Perhaps if I didn’t think John Carter was boring nonsense. :)

    I have only seen a tiny amount of this movie but the comedy during the armored car heist is wonderful.

  17. Vern, is it not at the beginning of the movie? Been a while since I’ve seen it but it’s definitely in the synopsis and I remember critics that summer making a big to do about it being set in the slight future.

  18. I just realized that with the SUMMER FLINGS series, the chances to get a WILD WILD WEST review are better than ever!

  19. Apparently this is the movie that tipped Rourke over the edge, so to speak. I really miss 80’s Mickey.

  20. It’s better to be dead and cool than alive and uncool.

  21. I don’t really think it matters for the person who is dead…What about alive and cool?

  22. As long as you´re alive. I don´t think you appreciate life enough if being dead would be some kind of preferable higher status. You wouldn´t even notice if you are cool so what is the point?

  23. Those of us who are lucky enough to live a happy life might think so. There’s plenty of people who don’t. My recipe is to keep it simple. Try to look at life as an early Jim Jarmusch movie, not some Baywatchesque existence. Then you can always be the hero, even on a small budget.

  24. I don´t live a happy life at all. But it is better than being dead. Unless you are an alien. Then you are better of dead. I learned that from the title of a Commodore 64 game: BETTER DEAD THAN ALIEN. The eighties were full of pearls of wisdom

  25. How do you know? Have you ever been dead?

  26. True, but I wouldn´t take my chances just yet unless the time comes. But I am always open to a pleasant surprise. Hopefully death is atleast not as shitty as in that Stephen King novel I read recently.

  27. Shoot: You’re dead-shaming. Stop.

  28. Shoot; “I don´t live a happy life at all.”
    Is that according to the misconception that we all have to be rich and famous to live a happy life or is it just in general? “At all” doesn’t sound good.

  29. pegsman- well, I don´t know how to answer that one. I may just have higher expectations of myself and when I don´t meet them I regard it as a failure.

  30. Shoot – Was that SK novel Revival by any chance? Cause that ending was scary as hell.

  31. darth- yeah. The ending of that book was troubling to say the least.

  32. Nothing personal, Shoot, but I’ve worked with a lot of Swedes over the past 30 years. And they have all suffered of what is usually called Weltschmerz – a belief that physical reality never can satisfy the demands of the mind (to quote the author). Is it a common thing in your country?

  33. “from” – not “of”

  34. pegsman- I don´t know if that is a common illness. But we are quite heavily medicated for soem reason.. You should see my parents medical cabinet. It could be a professional pharmacy of the sheer volume alone

  35. I kind of see why Bergman was Swedish and not Norwegian…

  36. I just thought education meant something. But you just have to be a snake to get ahead

  37. An educated snake will be the death of us all.

  38. Nah, educated snakes are too easy to spot, with their tiny glasses and their academic caps.

  39. Funny how you mention something and then how it twists and turns into something you never thought was possible.

  40. Just so you guys know ol’ Mr. M ain’t jokin’ about how much he loves this one:

    Harley Davidson & The Marlboro Man

    As far as I can tell, Harley Davidson & The Marlboro Man is a cult classic with a cult of one: me. I don't know anybody else who's even see...

  41. I knew I’d used those jokes before.

  42. You ever notice how 80s the early 90s was? The 90s didn’t really come into its own until Clinton was in office in 1993 and even then it took for a few more years for 80s cultural influence to go away completely.

    Other than the 60s I can’t think of a decade that ended so radically different than it began as much as the 90s, though we’ll see how the 2010s ends, but other than political things like Donald Trump the culture of the 2010s really came into its own in 2011 and things haven’t really changed too much since then, which in comparison with the 90s by 1997 things were totally different than 1991.

  43. Mastor Troy (ex-convict Poeface)

    June 2nd, 2017 at 11:02 pm

    **Try to look at life as an early Jim Jarmusch movie, Then you can always be the hero, even on a small budget.**

    Well said, pegsman. For that phrase, you will always be my hero.

  44. Griff, there’s much to be said for the theory that each decade really lasts from 4 or 5 years in to 4 or 5 years into the next. When we think of the “real” 60’s, it’s really ’65 to ’75. It’s the same with the ’50’s, ’70’s and ’80’s. Until it stopped. There was for various reasons no cultural revolution in the ’90’s. Everything became Jay Z-esque and Michael Bay-esque.

    Thank you, Master Troy.

  45. Sorry, “Mastor”

  46. pegsman – you are correct, cultural moments aren’t as clearly defined by decades as people like to think.

    The only real exception to that I can think of is the 80s, once Reagan was in office after only one year into the decade the 80s became “the 80s” overnight and stayed that way for the rest of the decade, even when Reagan was technically gone.

    But with most every other decade it’s a lot murkier.

  47. I sort of feel like the ’90s ended early around 1998. Movie-wise at least, that when Bayhem took over with Armageddon, the CGI excess of Godzilla ’98 and Wild Wild West. The first Star Wars prequel too.

    Although ’99 still ends on a pretty ’90s note with Fight Club and American Beauty. It’s murky but I sensed the ’90s wrapping up early.

  48. Well, the last two years of each decade is when things start changing, thing started to change in 88 and 89 and things definitely took a radical turn with the Great Recession and the election of Obama in the late 00s.

    In a way though the “turn of the millennium” from about 1998 to 2002 was it’s own little cultural moment.

  49. That’s true about the millennium.

    I still consider summer of 1989 pure ’80s with Last Crusade, Batman, Lethal Weapon 2, Karate Kid III, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Licence to Kill, Weekend at Bernie’s, UHF and the ilk.

  50. I kind of want to stay out of this, but I can’t help it; there is a HUGE difference in popular culture circa 1981 and 1988. Far bigger, in my estimation, than the changes between 1991 and 1998. The stereotypical image of “the 80s” (shoulder pads, rolled-up sleeves, neon, keytars) is really like 1984-1986, sure some stuff from earlier fits into the stereotypical image, as does some stuff afterwards, but that’s because some people were ahead or behind the curve.

  51. The last movie of the 80s was SUPER MARIO BROS (1993) and the first movie of the 90s was JURASSIC PARK (1993). Also around that time the synthie pop and new wave of the 80s was fully replaced by Eurodance, House and Techno (at least over here), so I would definitely say that the 90s started in 1993.

    Oh shit, was SMB a summer release? Does it count as summer fling? 0_0

  52. CJ: We can only hope!

  53. CJ, I’d love to think we got 3 extra years of ’80s movies but wouldn’t the handover be closer to 1991? T2 ushers in both digital FX and the $100 million budgeted tentpole.

  54. I’m looking at T2: NOT TRAINSPOTTING more like a harbinger of things to come. On the outside it was 90s, but its “Teenage boy and his killer robot friend from the future” plot is still pretty 80s if you ask me.

  55. Is there a way to search the history of my comments? I remember somebody posting a trailer for a movie that should be out by now that looked friggin’ sweet but now I can’t remember.

  56. Mastor Troy (ex-convict Poeface)

    June 4th, 2017 at 2:35 pm

    It wasn’t FREE FIRE was it, Sternshein? I remember you getting excited about it a few months ago…

  57. CJ Holden – You’ve used the theory that Super Mario Bros is the last 80s movie before and I think that works pretty well.

    T2 is very 90s but at the same time a sequel to an 80s movie.

  58. No, it was that movie. I think it involves a bank robbery.

  59. T2 was to me the first time it really felt like “ok it’s not the 80s anymore” it completely escalated everything and TRUE LIES was even more extreme (which was basically THE theme of the early to mid 90s). POINT BREAK also. Damn James Cameron basically brought action movies into the 90s in one form or another. He really is the king.

  60. I rewatched this a few years ago, the first time since I was a lad. In addition to the Die Hard V billboard, I found the sight gag of gas prices hovering around four dollarsausing for reasons probably unintended by the filmmakers.

    On a related note, let’s talk about the women besides Williams in the film. Kelly Hu (X2: X-Men United, Scorpion King) plays the gas station clerk. Tia Carrere plays Sizemore’s personal assistant, maybe a year out from costarring in Wayne’s World. Finally, Chelsea Field. I had such a crush on her back in the day. Most readers will remember her as Bruce Willis’ estranged wife in The Last Boyscout or as Teela in the live action Masters of the Universe film. I’ll forever remember her as the flight attendant who tries getting Arnold Schwazenegger to return to his seat in Commando, though.

  61. pegsman – there was a definite cultural revolution in the mid-90s if you were a British teen back then. What a great decade and place to come of age it was. The ‘Cool Britannia’ phenomenon, the explosion of indie-music (as a reaction to and extension of grunge), the international success of Trainspotting/Four Weddings, the ousting of 15 years of Tory rule for New Labour. Incredible times.

  62. Put me down as a “+1” on the whole “T2 is where the 90s really began” thing.

    Also, I’m proud of you guys. All these comments, mostly saying that y’all dig HD & TMM.

    Norms just don’t get it.

    (P.S. Sternshein – was it BABY DRIVER?)

  63. DirkD12, I would say that the bands who climbed to fame in the mid to late 90’s “just” reworked old styles in new ways. Wouldn’t you agree?

  64. No Karlos, I think it was a Asian movie I’m thinking of. Maybe I’ll run into the movie at some point.

  65. I just realized that I was getting Don Michael Paul and Paul Michael Glaser confused. It’s a common mistake really.

  66. I agree with the T2 theory. The ’90s had to start before JURASSIC PARK, because HOOK, ALADDIN, and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA all feel very ’90s to me! I’d put the end post midway through Summer ’99, after DEEP BLUE SEA. No way ARMAGEDDON isn’t quintessential ’90s, Fred! :P

  67. Just saw this one this morning due to the praise. Like CJ I’ve always been fascinated by this movie just due to the name but due to poor word of mouth I never bothered with it, even after reading Mr. M’s review on his site years back.

    Anyways thanks for the push Vern (and everyone else) because this is one of those ‘Where have you been all my life?!’ movies. This one was a lot of fun, 1991 audiences didn’t deserve it. I see this one getting a lot of replay in the future.

    Thanks again everybody!

  68. Sternshein – I mix those two up too! I have to look them up every time to make sure which one is which.

  69. “I know that pre-George Clooney there was a weird wall between TV and movie stardom”

    Investigative review series idea: In what movies do we see the wall, when does it hold, and when is it scaled? Does Clooney really deserve primary credit for ending it? It seemed like the wall was a 80’s-90’s thing that people liked to talk about, but I didn’t fully get at the time, and whose memory is growing vaguer through both years removed and the contrast of present day stars sometimes going from movies to a prestige TV series and back again.

  70. I do remember my first exposure to Denzel Washington was ST. ELSEWHERE and by that point (about a year before the series ended) he had already been Oscar nominated.

  71. This movie is so dumb and yet still so very enjoyable.

  72. Long time reader, first time poster

    June 9th, 2017 at 5:55 pm

    I haven’t seen this since it first came out on video but I loved it back then and watched it a bunch that year. I always thought it was a stealth remake of butch Cassidy and the sundance kid. There seemed to be a lot of correlations between the two for me. The bank casing/poker game fight due to sundance being accused of cheating against the convenience store thwarted robbery/pool game. The super cop team (dressed in black) the railroad organized to kill butch, sundance and the hole in the wall gang compared to the unyielding, unstoppable black trench coat gang after Harley, Marlboro and their team. Having to escape the posse by jumping off a high cliff into a river as opposed to the hotel pool leap. There were a bunch of others as I recall although this one has a happier ending (spoiler for butch & sundance. Does anyone else remember hearing anything about this or am I reading too much into this?

  73. I FIGURED IT OUT GUYS.

    Jailbreak. The Cambodian martial arts movie.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKTkibkMmLk

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