Sunday, January 07, 2007

Major Dad Gets Medieval On Bikers

Who woulda thought someone, even a repressed middle-aged war vet, could do so much damage to the human body with a shovel? DEADWOOD fans might want to seek out 1994's MOTORCYCLE GANG, in which a typically tight-lipped 1950s family man played by Gerald McRaney (currently nailing acclaim as George Hearst on the HBO western series) sheds his uptight skin when the safety of his family is at stake.

MOTORCYCLE GANG is one of a series of B-movie remakes the Showtime cable network produced under the REBEL HIGHWAY umbrella title. All were based on movies released in the '50s by American International Pictures, Hollywood's leading producer of action, science fiction, horror, fantasy, musical and other low-budget genre fodder of the era. Like many of the REBEL HIGHWAY movies, MOTORCYCLE GANG was made by a name director, John Milius (of RED DAWN and CONAN THE BARBARIAN fame), and took little more than its title from the earlier AIP film. It does preserve the 1950s setting of the original, however, even though the timeline seems a bit off as events unwind in the film.

Milius spends the first half of his 83-minute film setting up his characters, which are little more than cliches of Ike-era Caucasians. Cal Morris (McRaney), a veteran of World War II who keeps his emotions tightly coiled within, is driving crosscountry through the desert to California along with his sexually confused wife Jean (Milius' wife Elan Oberon), who's having an affair with the next-door neighbor, and their virginal teenage daughter Leeann (Carla Gugino), who wears a photo of fab Fabian pinned to the sweater stretched tightly over her womanly bosom. Cal's increased emotional reticence over the years of their marriage has caused Jean to seek acceptance with another man, and she reacts to the flattery of a pair of beatnik photographers complimenting her beauty with a combination of embarrassment and exhilaration. Leeann, meanwhile, is a good girl, but just becoming aware of her burgeoning sexuality and more than a little curious about it. She's naive, but not foolish, and is open enough about sex to tell her father about the honeymooning couple she heard through the thin motel walls the night before.

J. Edgar Hoover's dream family is shattered when it's attacked by a foursome of motorcycle toughs led by toothy Jake Busey. The object of a manhunt involving Texas police and a Texas Ranger (Marshall Teague) interested in "frontier justice," Busey and his boys attack the Morris' Ford and kidnap Leeann, taking her across the border to Mexico where the gang deals in pills and heroin.

Leeann seems strangely at ease with her abduction, although maybe it was the way of '50s women not to argue, even with greasy-haired kidnappers. This section of the film, which also depicts Cal's dubious decision to handle the situation himself, rather than seek the help of law enforcement, feels incomplete. Cal, up to his point, has appeared to be a by-the-book guy, and we're given no indication that the police are incapable or uninterested in taking his complaint seriously. Meanwhile, Leeann barely struggles with her captor and even goes along with his initial attempt at seduction, at least until it turns violent.

What Milius doesn't prepare us for is the satisfyingly violent and surprisingly bloody climax to the story, where McRaney, who has done his best to keep his violent war experiences from his family, sharpens up his camping shovel and invades the bikers' country hideout, armed for gory vengeance. It's a royal ass-shiving that earns the film's R rating and a whole mess o' drive-in satisfaction the makers of the original MOTORCYCLE GANG (directed by B-movie stalwart Edward L. Cahn) could barely have imagined.

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