It’s just a bunch of music video-style motorcycle races punctuated with brief interludes that are more dramatic place-holders than story, but a top-notch cast, some flashy camera work, and attitude to spare make “Biker Boyz” highly watchable.
Like “Saturday Night Fever” or “The Hustler,” it gives us a look at a vibrant sub-culture that is in a direct line from the knights of the roundtable through to the cowboys of the old west. They operate a fully-functioning society based on honor, dreams, loyalty, flair, and, of course, a huge helping of extravagently macho contests.
Jaleel (“Antowne Fisher’s” Derek Luke) adores his father Will (Eriq La Salle), the mechanic and best friend of the “King of Cali,” Smoke (Laurence Fishburne). A hundred and fifty years ago, he would have been the fastest gun in the west. Now, he’s the fastest biker in California and a guy who can make an entrance a Vegas headliner would envy.
Will is killed standing on the sidelines of a race. Jaleel is devastated. He blames Smoke. He stays away for six months and then shows up, bitterly angry and bursting to take Smoke down. But Jaleel has to earn the right to race Smoke, first by joining a gang and then by winning some races. Each confrontation moves the story forward until the big moment when Jaleel and Smoke, more alike and more connected than they realized, challenge each other to do what Will always said, “Burn rubber, not soul.”
The plot tries to be epic and primal, but it is just derivitive and creaky. What works, though is the vibrant presence of some of today’s most arresting actors. Fishburne, Jones, Luke, and Vanessa Bell Calloway as Jaleel’s mother give a lot of snap to the lukewarm dialogue. In small roles, Djimon Hounsou, Lorenz Tate, Rick Gonzalez, and Meagan Good manage to be vibrant and distinctive. One of the movie’s strengths is the way that this sub-culture has its own dignity and honor; it is clear that cheating, hustling, and disloyalty are not allowed and that any challenger is welcome. There is a nice moment when we find out that the character we know as “Soul Train” has a daytime persona — as a pinstripe-suited lawyer.
Parents should know that characters drink, smoke, and use strong language. There are sexual references and situations. There is some sexual humor and there are references to promiscuity and issues of paternity (with a traumatic discovery), but the relationship of the main characters is loving and devoted. Characters are in peril and there is serious injury and one death. Characters also “hustle” by pretending not to be able to race and betting a lot of money. While most characters are African-American, the gangs are open to all races, and Jaleel’s group has white, Hispanic, and Asian members. Characters get tatooed. The bikers engage in racing that is not just very dangerous but also illegal, and at one point some are arrested.
Families who see this movie should talk about how the biker culture is like and not like other cultures they know. What are the rules? How is status determined? How does that compare to groups in school? In sports? Or show business? What do you think about Smoke’s decision in the last race? Why does Jaleel say what he does about the helmet?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy some of the classics with similar themes, including “West Side Story” and “Saturday Night Fever.”