Review | ‘The Bikeriders’ roars into view with vivid performances

“The Bikeriders” offers an interesting test case: If one aspect of a movie is way above average, does it make up for the parts that are subpar? Specifically, if the performances are phenomenal across the board, is it okay if there’s no plot? Or not much of one?

“The Bikeriders” is an immersion in the life and times of the fictional Vandals, a Chicago motorcycle gang that evolves over the course of the 1960s from a working-class racing club to a criminal outfit involved in drug-running, extortion and murder. The film is based on a 1968 photo book of the same title by the celebrated New Journalism photographer Danny Lyon, who lived with the Chicago Outlaws for several years and documented their lives around the same time that Hunter S. Thompson was writing his nonfiction book on California’s Hell’s Angels. Lyon is played in “The Bikeriders” by Mike Faist (“West Side Story,” “Challengers”) as a scruffy, polite college kid type hanging around the scene’s fringes with a camera and a tape recorder.

Faist is a compelling figure, but he’s cast in the shadows by the film’s main characters: Johnny (Tom Hardy), the club’s president and alpha dog; Benny (Austin Butler), a silent hog-riding heartthrob; and Kathy (Jodie Comer), the neighborhood girl who takes one look at Benny and is gone, baby, gone.

There are other, lesser characters who make impressions: Brucie (Damon Herriman), Johnny’s sensible, capable lieutenant who’ll never be anything more; Cal (Boyd Holbrook), the gang’s chief gearhead; Cockroach (Emory Cohen), named after the bugs he eats for the sheer pleasure of freaking other people out. Then there’s Zipco, a crazy-eyed, beer-swilling, conspiracy-spewing gorilla played by the estimable Michael Shannon.

That actor’s presence is a sign that we’re in a Jeff Nichols movie. The writer-director made his mark in 2011 with “Take Shelter,” starring a fearsome Shannon as a Midwestern husband and father who smells apocalypse coming in on the wind. Shannon also appeared in Nichols’s sci-fi suspense drama “Midnight Special” (2016) and had a smaller role in the director’s “Mud” (2012). That he’s a side dish to the main buffet here seems a mark of Nichols’s growing ambitions.

To put it simply, that ambition is to make the “Goodfellas” of biker movies — less a tight narrative of A to B to C than a portrait of a milieu and its unwinding. In “The Bikeriders,” the gang gets started after Johnny sees Marlon Brando on TV in the seminal 1953 biker movie “The Wild One” and decides he wants to do that — or, rather, be that. Johnny bestrides the film like a king whose crown grows increasingly heavy; he’s a cool head who only acts hot as a way of asserting his dominance. Hardy has drawn Brando comparisons from the beginning — the heft, the charisma, the mumbles — but this performance is a particular piece of genius, since he’s not consciously imitating Brando but rather playing a man who unconsciously imitates him, so the Brando comes out squished and sideways but also some kind of magnanimous. It’s one of the darnedest things you’ll see — a noble parody.

What Comer is up to is related but different. The actress arrived on the half-shell of TV’s “Killing Eve” as the brilliant psychopath Villanelle, and she has a spooky, wide-eyed presence that hides a mind like a box of knives. Kathy serves as our narrator in “The Bikeriders,” ostensibly telling the story to Danny Lyon a few years after it’s all gone down, and as the only three-dimensional female character in the entire movie, she has to fight for the space to be recognized in a ritualistic macho world. If Johnny represents the wildness of the road, Kathy is the domesticity that pulls the bikers back to the hearth, their wives, their children. And she’ll tell you as much in a deep-dish Chicaga accent that is either a prizewinning work of civic imposture or the height of actorly fraudulence. Either way, she’s incredibly fun to listen to.

Butler’s Benny is the Johnny Angel of this group — the strong, silent one who is what all the other bikers want to be. That includes Hardy’s Johnny, and Nichols and his actors have great sport tiptoeing around the line of homoeroticism between the two men. Against Hardy and Comer acting their blessed hearts out, Butler (“Elvis”) maintains a pure and magical presence, and while the movie never sugarcoats Benny’s dimness, it finds a kind of Zen grandeur in the character’s unwilled perfection.

Around these three boils a cauldron of testosterone and violence, and “The Bikeriders” skips from incident to incident without building much steam. (“Goodfellas,” remember, had the Lufthansa heist as a narrative spine.) There’s a funny, bloody dust-up between the Vandals and a rival gang that falls apart in exhaustion and shared beers, and a tense standoff in a bar that ends sadly for the unlucky proprietor (actor-singer Will Oldham). A young, feral kid (Toby Wallace) moves steadily in from the movie’s sidelines like an ugly rumor; he wants to join the gang, but he lacks what Johnny considers ethics. What the movie’s aiming for isn’t so much how an innocent idea became corrupted as how that idea’s latent corruption became manifest as younger, rougher members joined the gang. Was this a tragedy? The characters certainly think so. Maybe Jeff Nichols does, too.

Adam Stone’s cinematography is rich and atmospheric, golden with the dust kicked up by spinning wheels, and when Lyon’s original photos are shown at the end, it’s not hard to acknowledge that the director has done right by them. The same goes for the terrific soundtrack of period garage rock, doo-wop, R&B and crazed girl-group classics. All that’s missing, really, is a story. “The Bikeriders” is almost good enough to convince us we don’t need one.

R. In area theaters. Contains language throughout, violence, some drug use and brief sexuality. 97 minutes.

Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at

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