Monday, December 15, 2008

80s Trash of the Week: Knightriders

Holy shit, a 2 1/2 hour movie about people jousting on motorcycles. It's Renn Fest meets Side Hackers. Ed Harris plays Billy, the "king" of a small band of LARPers, essentially- SCA types, but they use dirt bikes instead of horses. This is the kind of thing that could only spring from the early 80s- with that lingering anti-establishment attitude and idealism from the 70s, and something wacky, like Camelot meets Easy Rider. They even trademarked "Knightriders" as if this would become the next big thing. As you can tell, this did not occur- otherwise you'd see hogs parked outside Medieval Times, and bikers wearing plate armor on the highway. Admittedly it is a pleasing image, mixing modern and old, but after 150 minutes, you'll want to knock them off their bikes and pour fire ants into their helmets.
Ed Harris does his best with a strange role- Billy has firm principles, and wants to live his own way, without the fetters and hang-ups of modern society. Tom Savini plays his rival Morgan, who sees no problem with write-ups in motorcycle magazines, and the perils of fame interfering with their merry little caravan; he's young, strong and ambitious; in one of the first scenes we see him wielding a humongous fuck-off mace that he plans to use in competition. It looks more like a sledgehammer than a real medieval weapon, but who cares? They're on motorcycles. This isn't exactly a period piece; in fact the movie reminded me more of postapocalyptic '80s fare like Rollerball and The Blood of Heroes-- aka Salute to the Jugger- where Rutger Hauer, Joan Chen, Delroy Lindo and Vincent D'Onofrio play murder football in a future desert wasteland.

Knightriders has some exciting, silly action scenes- jousting on motorcycles is ridiculous, but definitely dangerous- but mostly it deals with a small group of people trying to live how they want to, in the midst of modern society. The enduring myth of American pioneer spirit and its ability to overcome the crushing onslaught of civilization is what's in focus here; done better in revisionist Westerns like Lonely are the Brave, and classics like Easy Rider.

The story deals with aging Billy defending his status as "King" from Morgan, all the while trying to keep the group's principles true. A corrupt local cop wants a bribe not to shut down their show, and Ed refuses; this leads to a pot raid and jail for one of the group, and Ed gets himself thrown in along with him, for support. They take a beating, but finally a lawyer steps in. Of course, at the end of the film, this sloppy symbol of authority gets his ass kicked by Ed Harris in plate armor at a burger joint, and we all rejoice; but like Brian Wilson, Billy "just wasn't made for these times."

A shorter film would have been a lot more tolerable, but Knightriders is the epitome of excess; George A. Romero, famous for the groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead and its excellent sequel Dawn of the Dead, indulges himself deeply here. While those films were solid survival horror stories with a heaping spoonful of social commentary, this is a much more personal film and a lot harder to swallow. I can imagine it being held dear to the hearts of a lot of people who like dressing up like King Arthur and playing with swords. But for the rest of us, it might make a good double feature with Monster Camp.

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