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A western that speeds along on two wheels

January 31, 2003|Gene Seymour | Newsday

"Biker Boyz" is the kind of movie Howard Hawks would have made if he'd lived long enough to feel the heat of hip-hop's impact on the culture at large. He might have applied a bit more polish to the dialogue and been more circumspect with his camera placement. But even through the dub-laden soundtrack and contemporary street lingo, there's no mistaking the evocations of such Hawks ripsnorters as "Red River," "Only Angels Have Wings," even "Air Force" and "Rio Bravo" in "Biker Boyz's" story line.

Clearly, director Reggie Rock Bythewood, whose previous film, 2000's "Dancing in September," was a trenchant, ruefully spot-on attack on the network TV business, knows his pop mythology and spares none of its grander accessories in adapting Michael Gougis' magazine article about the subculture of outlaw motorcycle racers on Los Angeles streets. His touch isn't quite smooth enough to keep a cliche or two from clanging in the night. But it's easy to imagine Hawks approving Bythewood's poised approach to the way men impose pressure on themselves and behave when they take their chances.

Even Laurence Fishburne, droopy mustache and all, can't help looking like the grizzled, bearish, swaggering old hand John Wayne frequently enacted for Hawks. Here he's Manuel "Smoke" Galloway, president of the Black Knights motorcycle club and unofficial, if undisputed, "King of Cali" (as in California) by virtue of being undefeated in every short-track, high-speed bike duel to which he's been challenged.

During one of these late-night street races, something goes terribly wrong, and Smoke's mechanic, Tariq (Eriq La Salle), is killed by a flying bike. Tariq's son Kid (Derek Luke from "Antwone Fisher") channels his seething resentment toward Smoke into a take-no-prisoners bid to challenge the older man's supremacy. Kid forms his own club, gets a tattoo artist-girlfriend (Meagan Goode), and acquires his own coterie, including one of Smoke's former loyalists, a pretender to the throne named Dog (Kid Rock).

It's implied, but rarely stated, that these speed junkies have conventional middle-class lives. The Black Knight known as Soul Train (Orlando Jones) is even shown in attorney's uniform, helping Kid post bail on a speeding arrest. It might have been interesting to see more such juxtapositions. But they would have gotten in the way of the stunts, taunts and streaking bikes as well as the behavioral rituals leading up to all of that stuff. Of course, there's more than a little Oedipal melodrama tossed into the mix. But the movie rarely gets as sappy or as contrived as one keeps expecting.

Beyond its mood and motion, "Biker Boyz" also provides an occasion to see the cream of African American acting talent making the most of this material, even in airtight enclosures. The women, especially Vanessa Bell Calloway as Kid's mom and Lisa Bonet as Smoke's once and future girlfriend, are just sexy and vivid enough to make you want more of them. You also want more of Bythewood's work in the future, with material as edgy and dangerous as a turbopowered bike race on slick concrete.

*

'Biker Boyz'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, sexual content and language.

Laurence Fishburne...Smoke

Derek Luke...Kid

Orlando Jones...Soul Train

Djimon Hounsou...Motherland

Lisa Bonet...Quennie

A 3 Arts Entertainment production, released by DreamWorks. Director Reggie Rock Bythewood. Producers Stephanie Allain, Gina Prince-

Bythewood, Erwin Stoof. Executive producer Don Kurt. Screenplay by Craig Fernandez and Reggie Rock Bythewood. Cinematographer Gregory Gardiner. Editors Terilyn A. Shropshire, Carolyn Ross. Music Camara Kambon. Production designer Cecilia Montiel. Art director Michael Atwell. Set decorator Jon Danniells. Running time: One hour, 51 minutes. In general release.

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