Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn't impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there's I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.
Cultural infamy: Hell Ride was barely a blip on the cultural radar, but even that blip was poop-colored. Almost no one saw this 2008 movie, and those who did really didn't care for it. It has a lowly red 25 at Metacritic.com, with words like "cliché" (TV Guide), "no fun" (L.A. Times), and "witless" (The A.V. Club) being doled out without remorse. As I walked into Keith's office (he's the one who called it "witless") and told him I'd be in the official A.V. Club screening room for the next 90 minutes or so with Hell Ride, he said cheerfully, "I don't think you're going to like it!"
Curiosity factor: But still, there's that nagging sense in me somewhere that this could be a supercharged piece of shitty entertainment. In big letters above the title, it says "Quentin Tarantino Presents"—a phrase that should hold no cultural value at this point in history, but somehow still does. (Have you watched Reservoir Dogs lately? Guess what—still fucking awesome.) All I know about the plot of Hell Ride going in is that it's about badass bikers who do badass things. Michael Madsen stars as "The Gent," which has some promise right there, and Vinnie Jones (the big baddie from Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and X-Men 3) is often entertaining. One minus: Hell Ride was written and directed by and stars Larry Bishop, whom I knew nothing about except that he's apparently some sort of Tarantino hanger-on. But that's okay, I learned more about him through his film.
The viewing experience: The critics were right, as it turns out. That doesn't necessarily mean anything—critics are often right about a movie being crappy, while still failing to mention the joys of shitty movies—but in this case, they were right that there's very little joy to be had in this sloppy mess. Not enough action, not enough killin', very little attention to an overcomplicated story. To make up for it? Boobs. Hundreds and hundreds of boobs. Mostly fake, mostly naked boobs. Everywhere. But even if that's your thing, you will probably be able to find a better naked-boob delivery system at the video store, one that doesn't revolve around the world's most overacted biker gang.
I need to jump to the end here very quickly, because watching "The Making Of Hell Ride" (a bonus feature on the DVD) really opened my eyes to a lot of things. While the scenes were unfolding, I couldn't help but think, "How in hell did someone give this no-name, horrible actor the resources to write, direct, and star in a movie that clearly cost more than a nickel to make?" And the answer came to me in this gripping documentary: Bishop used to make biker movies in the '60s, and those biker movies were fetishized and blown out of reasonable proportion by Quentin Tarantino. Apparently Tarantino connected with Bishop a few years ago and told him, "It's your destiny to make the greatest biker movie of all time." Bishop took this very, very seriously, apparently not realizing that a coke-fueled Tarantino spends most of his day waxing similarly hyperbolic to everyone he meets. (To the Dunkin' Donuts guy: "It's your destiny to make the greatest tall black coffee of all time!" To the meter maid: "Remember those parking tickets you used to give out in 1968 at the drive-in? You should do those again!")
But Bishop, son of Rat Packer Joey Bishop, took Tarantino's praise as a directive to make "art." And when the attempt to make art collides with the absolute inability to make art (and when it's coupled with the overwhelming belief in the greatness of your art), hilarity can often ensue. Hell Ride is terrible in many, many ways, but the most glaringly obvious way is that it stars Larry Bishop as a badass biker whom everybody's supposed to be afraid of. But Larry Bishop is a nearly 60-year-old Jew from Philly, and also not a good actor. Having him play the role of Pistolero—the centerpiece of his drama, and a person who's supposed to have so much gravitas that every woman wants to fuck him and every man fears him—was a ridiculous idea. Every second Bishop is onscreen, he's chewing up everything around him. He makes co-stars Michael Madsen and Dennis Hopper look intricately subtle. Bishop always clenches his jaw in some weird impersonation of Don Corleone that's supposed to be badass, but is instead hilarious. His performance almost makes the movie worth watching—and when you couple it with his interviews in the bonus material, it probably is.
But on to the movie itself, a confused jumble of lame fights and bare breasts. Bishop is the leader of a gang, and there are some other gangs (one led by Vinnie Jones), and apparently they're at war over something, but we're never sure what. We get a lot of flashbacks revealing the murder of a Comanche babe, who gets her throat slit and is set on fire on July 4, 1976. The flashbacks are insanely Tarantino-esque; if his name weren't on this thing, it wouldn't be called an homage, it would be called a rip-off.
The only hope for actual enjoyment comes from Madsen, who's introduced here in a scene with Bishop. It's almost like Bishop's bad acting rubs off on him:
And then we get introduced to that tall kid from Six Feet Under, Eric Balfour, who's part of Bishop and Madsen's gang—a newbie who has quickly earned Bishop's trust. It's painfully obvious from the first flashback that's he's probably also Bishop's long-lost… yawn… son. Early on, they go on a murder spree, with Madsen actually commanding a great scene in which he kills everybody in a house, not letting his buddies get a chance at them. Of course, he and his friends walk away from the house as it explodes in flame behind them. They don't flinch.
Fast-forward to the real reason Bishop decided to make this movie: He's the director, writer, and star, which means he can hire silicon-enhanced babes to crawl all over him for basically half the flick. Which he does. Not only does he get orgy-tastic with a bunch of women at the beginning, it turns out he has three ladies in the wings. And not only that, he doesn't really need to be true to the biker-chick look. Most of the women in Hell Ride are young and beautiful—and they have all their teeth. And for some reason they like to hang out with grizzled old bikers and throw their naked bodies at them. Hmm.
One of Bishop's ladies, Nadia—he cleverly calls her Nada, and references that in the "making-of" featurette several times—just can't get enough of him. She begs him to fuck her in pretty much every scene she's in. It's very convincing. Have a look:
Meanwhile, something's happening with the plot, some kind of revenge for killing Balfour's mother, but it's never entirely clear who needs to be killed or why. We eventually learn that David Carradine—in a big reveal straight out of Kill Bill—is the ultimate baddie, but he barely has a chance to overact before Balfour cuts his head off.
Somewhere in here, Bishop decides he needs to do a little thinking out in the desert, with the aid of some peyote. This gives him a chance to imitate the cheesy "tripping" scenes in bad '60s movies, but with love. Beware, this clip is NSFW—it's the haunted naked dreams of a failed movie director pretending to be a biker:
It isn't that the movie is too muddled for viewers to tell exactly what's going on; it's more like it's so dumb that it's impossible to care. At some point, most people who've stuck with Hell Ride will just default to waiting for the next bar scene crammed with ugly dudes and naked women, and it'll come—soon enough, the bad guys are in a bar filled with Suicide Girls. And then (so goes the cycle of life) everybody dies except the good guys. Here's Vinnie Jones' death scene. It turns out he killed Balfour's mom after all. (I think.) Anyway, he gets what's coming to him via a bullet, then an arrow, then a knife to the throat, then by being set on fire:
Did I mention there's a treasure? Yeah, the mom left Sonny (one of Balfour's character's many names) a box full of money buried out in the desert, and for some reason, everybody was looking for the keys throughout the whole movie—even Madsen and Bishop, who knew where it was the whole time, because they later tell Sonny. (Also, they didn't need the keys—it was a shitty safe-deposit box that anybody could've smashed open.)
But that isn't important. What's important is realizing that father and son have been reunited in a drug-dealing biker gang that is once again free to terrorize rural Arizona. "You did good, Sonny," says Bishop. "I think I'm gonna call you son from now on." Aww.
Oh, but it isn't over. Without its accompanying bonus features, Hell Ride would just be another shitty movie that you should never, ever think about watching. With the bonus features—particularly interviews with the ego-tastic Bishop—it becomes an amazing lesson in Hollywood hubris. Lines like "There's so much pathos to it" and "America truly is a melting pot" are bandied about. Bishop compares the acid-trip scene to a Modigliani painting. A movie that should never be dissected is—and everyone decides it's a masterpiece. (Even as they're putting together a feature called "The Babes of Hell Ride.") I didn't watch with the commentary turned on, but I'm sending this thing over to Nathan for a Commentary Tracks Of The Damned ASAP.
I have to leave you with this clip of the actress in the above sexy scene talking with great seriousness about a scene in which she begs an aging biker to fuck her before she gives up "the info." It's kind of sublime.
How much of the experience wasn't a total waste of time? This is a tough one, because this movie is actually terrible. There are a couple of moments where it became what I thought it might be—a shoot-'em-up good time—but it eventually just circled the drain into oblivion. But those bonus features and interviews—and pretty much every second Bishop is onscreen—are so over-the-top ridiculous, it's almost worth watching as an anthropological study. It's not so bad it's good, but it's so bad it's fascinating. So… 100 percent? Zero? I'm not sure.