Billed as a raucous throwback to the days of the Sergio Leone spaghetti western, with a heaping helping of testosterone-fueled motorcycle action thrown into the mix, Hell Ride is a big, masturbatory exercise in stylistic affectation. Occasionally fun, wildly self-indulgent but never less than baffling, it's a solid-gold riddle — a busted-structure, B-movie chopper opera that seemingly exists for no other reason than to feed a couple credit lists and keep nudging you to point out how "cool" it is.
Written, directed by and costarring Larry Bishop (son of Joey, oddly, and surely mistaken by some autograph hound at some point for Tom Savini), the movie, in the loosest sense, centers around a group of badass bikers out to avenge the murder of one of their members. Pistolero (Bishop) is head honcho of the Victors, who have recently lost one of their own. Along with his cohorts, the Gent (Michael Madsen) and the mysterious Comanche (Eric Balfour), Pistolero aims to take down the Deuce (David Carradine) and his psychotic second-in-command Billy Wings (Vinnie Jones), the menacing leaders of the 666ers. A potential mutiny looms on the horizon, though, when Pistolero's commitment to profit is questioned by a few of his fellow bikers; all of this is tied into a woman from the shared past of Pistolero and the recently murdered Victor, and that flashback back story naturally also figures into the proceedings when Comanche's (very obvious) true identity finally comes to the surface.
Hell Ride's story is wafer-thin, and scenes often unfold with little or no sensible set-up, including a seriocomic bar brawl between Madsen and Balfour and numerous opportunities for Bishop to grind on some naked ladies, including Leonor Varela and Julia Jones. (That's infrequently the sign of high art, when a writer-director puts himself in a movie as the guy hooking up with multiple naked chicks.) The heavy influences of executive producer Quentin Tarantino are obvious, and the script reads as if designed by checklist: surf guitars, sun-weathered faces, florid language, occasionally digressive monologues (including one about dirt in this case), shit-shack bars where women oil-wrestle topless, and slow-motion walk-aways with things blowing up in the background.
If there's a silver lining, it's that the movie is told with such an abundance of mood as to largely hold one's attention. The cinematography, by Scott Kevan, is gorgeous and surprisingly artistic; music is well used; and the colorful biker extras and old-time kids here — a group which also includes Dennis Hopper in a bit role — mesh with the relatively younger faces. Everything about the movie feels realistically grimy, dusty and beat-up. (Indeed, watching Hell Ride, one thinks, "Where are Mickey Rourke and Danny Trejo — shouldn't they be in this?") There's an undeniable tonal authenticity here, in other words, just as in something like Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects. Even if you don't care for it (and this film, though much less disagreeable on the surface than the example cited above, also dawdles and drags a lot more), one has to cede that the movie conveys a singular vision, in both look and feel.
A shame, then, that so much of the movie reads as so basically empty. Characters speak in willfully coded vagaries that are mock-poetic stand-in for tuff-guy chatter; Bishop would seemingly rather delight in saying a lot of nothing colorfully instead of anything directly, simply. Many of the movie's key events are also rendered off-screen or in piecemeal flashback, decisions which neuter potentially cathartic sequences (a kidnapping of the Deuce, say) and make what should be active or edgy scenes just as talky. Diehard grindhouse aficionados — and I'm talking about folks who remember and cherish some of those dusty old biker pictures from the 1970s, and other hippie-tinged, fringe exploitation flicks — will spark to Hell Ride's all-out machismo, and the upped sex quotient will make this a nice, naughty little rental for 16-year-olds who can sneak it past their parents on the Netflix list as just another low-budget actioner. Mostly, though, Hell Ride is an oddball misfire — nutty, strident and cocksure, but with not much in the tank. (The Weinstein Company/Dimension, R, 85 minutes)