I found this DVD called MOTORCYCLE GANG, starring Carla Gugino and Jake Busey, directed by John Milius. That’s gotta be a TV movie, right? Yes, upon closer inspection I figured out it was part of the Rebel Highway series that Showtime did in 1994.
Rebel Highway was what happened when producers Lou Arkoff (son of Samuel Z.) and Debra Hill (one-time producing partner of John Carpenter) put together a group of ten directors and let them choose titles from the American International Pictures library of ’50s drive-in movies. They could remake it or just use the title if they wanted. They got low budgets and short shooting schedules, but apparently they were given final cut and encouraged to make them sleazy. So it was alot like the original AIP. Some of the directors included John McNaughton, Joe Dante and William Friedkin. The only one I’d seen before this was ROADRACERS, which was Robert Rodriguez’s practice movie between EL MARIACHI and DESPERADO.
I guess this was one that just used the title and not the original plot. But like some of the hot rod movies I remember (and THE HILLS HAVE EYES, sort of), this is the story of a middle class family who break down on a cross-country trip and then get terrorized by young toughs of a different social class. The dad is Gerald McRaney (from Simon and Simon), the mom is Elan Oberon (Milius’s wife), the teenage daughter is Gugino. They’re moving from Texas to the promised land of California when they run into a motorcycle gang – oh shit, that’s where the title comes from – led by Jake Busey and including Richard Edson (DO THE RIGHT THING) and John Cassini.
Each family member has something they’re keeping inside. The dad’s is his experiences in the war. This is a John Milius movie, after all. I like how it’s revealed by the “Go For Broke” tattoo on his hand and the fearless but cautious way he walks around the hoodlums sitting on his car in a parking lot, obviously trying to scare him. He seems like a nice guy and (more important to Milius) a good protector of his women. Like so many good characters he hates violence and is really good at it. But he’s frustrated because his wife is bored with him and jerking him around, purposely getting him horny and then going to sleep.
I’m not sure what that lady’s problem is, but back at the old place she was having an affair with a neighbor, right under her husband’s nose. That’s her secret. And the daughter’s secret is that she knows about that. Also that she’s growing up and she’s super horny and attracted to bad boys.
Gugino was about 22 at the time. Her previous movie was SON IN LAW with Pauly Shore. The main thrust of her character is summed up by her sweater: buttoned down good girl type of clothing; cannot hide big boobs. In promoting the series Arkoff said “if you made REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE today… it would be more lurid, sexier, and much more dangerous, and you definitely would have had Natalie Wood’s top off.” Well, no tops come off in this one. I think Milius was more interested in the old school idea of women who are completely clothed but simmering with barely contained sexuality ready to explode. When the family stops to eat, Gugino’s sitting right there with her mom but she starts making eyes at an adult cowboy and fondling her Coke bottle.
Mom and daughter get racy together when the beatnik couple who run a hotel they’re staying at invite them to drink wine and pose for “artistic” photos. This scene isn’t important to the plot but it adds nuance to the movie by complicating the generational conflict. These type of stories take advantage of age and class gaps, you’re supposed to relate to the family and be hateful of these bikers. They’re young and different and scary, you’re supposed to fear people who are different from you.
But they don’t fear these beatniks, they enjoy their company and are open to their different values and try to convince dad that their lifestyle is “cute” and that they’re “artists.” So Milius isn’t against all young punks and bums. He likes some of them. Dad is appalled when he sees the photos they posed for, but we know they’re innocent. Mostly.
The motorcycle gang expects to take advantage of Gugino’s burgeoning sexuality and attraction to the forbidden fruit. They’re involved in drug trafficking over the Mexican border and murder of some of their contacts, and when they come across Gugino they decide to become kidnappers too. Busey, who we’ve previously seen as a typical Buseyian nut, pretends to be a sweet-talking James Dean when he talks to the girl. He pretends he had to take her away to protect her from the other bikers. He calls her “baby” and “angel” and tries to squint and look dreamy, but he has those giant teeth, you know? Maybe that’s why she doesn’t fall for it.
Whoever cast Busey was ahead of their time, because this was before he started breaking out in THE FRIGHTENERS, CONTACT and STARSHIP TROOPERS. These young bikers are real psychos, they are not good people. They’re not all that interesting though. There was one part I really liked where either Edson or Cassini (I forget which) shoots a guy that’s prone on the ground and the other one pats him on the shoulder and says “Nice shot!” He seems genuinely proud.
The movie starts with narration by Gugino’s character, and she was the reason I rented it (a man has needs), but I think Milius was right to make the story focus on the dad. The things he goes through and achieves are mostly non-verbal. He tenses up at the sound of motorcycles in the distance, he decides to not get help from the police after recognizing one of them from the war, he tricks the corrupt Mexican border patrol into giving him information by making them think he doesn’t understand Spanish, he confesses and receives the approval of a police officer with a mere look and salute, because both are vets. And, you know, some chokes and some throat chops and stuff. He has some pretty brutal moves, no doubt heavily researched by Milius.
In THE HILLS HAVE EYES the family had to turn into savages for any of them to get out of there. Most of them were killed, one was used as bait. But that was the Vietnam era. MOTORCYCLE GANG is the ’50s, so it’s a little more optimistic about the survival of the family unit. The horrors they’ve gone through have actually made them closer. Now mom and daughter really know how dad feels about having killed people, because they’ve done it too. And dad feels truly understood. Maybe mom’ll stop fucking around now and dad’ll hang out with her beatnik friends. As for daughter, she gets a job as a rollerskating waitress. Not sure where that fits in to all the themes and shit but that’s shown in the wraparound narration parts.
This is not a great movie, and definitely feels like it was made for TV. And I’m guessing that could be said of all the Rebel Highway movies. But the Milius voice and some interesting themes definitely come through within the limitations, so I think it’s a successful neo-B-movie.