Hell Ride, Larry Bishop’s homage to grindhouse biker flicks, has lots going for it. It indulges in the requisite amount of sex, drugs, and violence expected of any exploitation film, combining plenty of gratuitous t&a with a peyote trip and a few carefully placed moments of violence and gore. It also boasts an interesting cast, including supporting roles by Dennis Hopper as Eddie Zero, a role that cleverly plays off his Billy persona from Easy Rider; David Carradine in a small but effective part as the boss of a renegade biker gang; and Michael Madsen as the Gent, a tuxedo shirt-wearing version of the characters he played in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill movies. Throughout, the movie is shot in a fierce style, employing grainy film, quick cuts, and inventive long and medium shots that effectively capture the desert landscapes and roadhouses in which the action takes place.
Yet something doesn’t quite work in Hell Ride. Perhaps it’s the unnecessarily convoluted plot and structure of the movie. Ostensibly the story of the Victors, a biker gang led by the aging Pistolero (Bishop), and their attempt both to avenge the recent killing of one of their own and to take care of some thirty-year-old unfinished business, the movie gives us very little background or context as it speeds through its increasingly unbelievable events. Even worse, Bishop decides to tell this thin story by frequently jumping between multiple times and settings with no discernible logic. Instead of enhancing our understanding of the relationships between the characters or leading us to some critical central scene, the disjointed structure ends up highlighting the holes in the plot and giving the movie a pretentious veneer.
The dialogue is also problematic. As in Tarantino films, characters engage in excessive wordplay and off-the-cuff philosophizing. But while Tarantino uses dialogue to develop his characters and manipulate the rhythm of his movies, Bishop doesn’t put his dialogue to such good use. In Hell Ride, the frequent puns and commentary come off as mechanical and forced, telling us very little about the characters and often lacking a sense of timing.
Or perhaps the problem is Larry Bishop himself. With a cheesy goatee and a fake tan, Bishop’s Pistolero oozes self-satisfaction, and he never really fits with the other characters or the film’s compelling aesthetic. Son of Rat Packer Joey Bishop, Larry Bishop clearly wants Hell Ride to play on the sense of style and cool of Rat Pack movies like Ocean’s Eleven. Yet Pistolero always feels more campy than cool, more porn-star than biker, and this makes every scene in which he appears feel slightly off-kilter. Pistolero is smarmy, always irresistible to women, always one step ahead of his rivals and pals, always wearing a shit-eating grin, yet never very likable.
The movie’s best moments involve Madsen, who gives the story a much-needed dose of self-deprecation by continually questioning Pistolero’s (and the movie’s) intentions. Towards the end of the film, for example, Madsen’s Gent quips to Pistolero and Comanche (Eric Balfour) that years ago his life was all about riding, drinking, and having sex, but that he now feels caught up in “an endless cycle symphony” with too many movements and too much drama. Here the Gent seems to clue us into the sort of movie Bishop hoped he was creating: Hell Ride wants to be a motorcycle symphony, a movie that revitalizes the biker flick while pushing its excesses to the limit. Instead, the movie’s self-consciousness feels joyless, and we’re left, like the Gent, pining for the good old days of the three Bs: “bikes, beer, and booty.”