Revved-Up 'Biker Boyz': A Rousing Ride

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 31, 2003

"Biker Boyz" is a teenage drag-racing movie reminiscent of the motorcycle melodramas of the 1950s, in which adolescents ran rampant through America's streets like so many aliens, or communists, or simply hormone-powered ids.

The movie hews to the formulaic demands of the genre, which combines the taut showdowns of the Western, the structure of the musical (every race is like a song-and-dance number) and the underlying narrative of a social problem picture. But it's on this last point that "Biker Boyz" could be called truly original: In a twist, the members of its motorcycle gangs are predominantly African American. And they come from middle-class suburbia and white-collar professions rather than ghettos, housing projects or other literal or metaphoric dead ends.

It's a refreshing addition to last year's encouraging crop of films that take black middle-class life as a given ("Drumline," "Antwone Fisher," "Barbershop") rather than a deviation from the pathology audiences usually see on-screen. And "Biker Boyz" features an outstanding cast of young and veteran actors, including Laurence Fishburne and Derek Luke. Luke, who made a remarkably restrained debut in "Antwone Fisher" as a young man coming to terms with a troubled past, here proves that he's no flash in the pan. He provides quiet, strong ballast to "Biker Boyz" and goes head-to-head with Fishburne with the aplomb of a pro.

Still, it's a motorcycle movie, and although director Reggie Rock Blythewood has tweaked some stereotypes a bit, he hasn't tampered with the genre's essentials: loud engines, lots of leather and glaring looks, sharply edited race and stunt sequences and an overarching worship of men and their toys.

Luke plays Kid, who has grown up in the world of illicit drag racing in California, where men who are lawyers by day race their motorcycles down empty streets by night. It's the tribal ritual of wannabes: They have the disposable income to buy the biggest bike and the baddest clothes, and they speak in the street vernacular that would get them fired or ostracized in their day jobs. "Biker Boyz" doesn't dwell on that contradiction, though. Instead the film focuses on Kid's relationship to Smoke (Fishburne), the "King of Cali" and undefeated drag-racing champion of the state. Kid's father is Smoke's mechanic until he is killed in a terrible accident; after that, and especially after a whopper of a third-act revelation, Kid and Smoke embark on a mytho-poetic rivalry that can culminate only in a duel to the death -- at least of a reputation.

Blythewood doesn't question the silly rituals that look even sillier when someone of Fishburne's stature does them -- Freud would have a heyday with the psychosexual implications of men revving their engines at each other instead of talking, or the elaborately choreographed entrances Smoke's gang makes on its armada of phallic symbols. "Biker Boyz" is an irony-free world where honor, Oedipal urges and the impulses and anxieties of male bonding all crash together at 120 mph -- and, miraculously, nobody gets hurt. ("You know what we call bikers in the emergency room?" Kid's mother frantically asks him when she discovers he's been racing. "Organ donors.")

In fact, the bikers' slang for the streets they race on is "the set," which seems appropriate for a world in which performance and posturing are just as important as skills. It will all look pretty ridiculous to grown-ups, but to 13-year-old boys (and adults with well-tended inner versions thereof), "Biker Boyz" will be the perfect testosterone-fueled, flash-edited, music-driven joy ride. If turnabout's fair play, Queen Latifah should be looking over a "Biker Girlz" script right now. Vroom, vroom!

Biker Boyz (90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content and language.

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