In case the title doesn’t tip one off, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man is a parody of white, American male exceptionalism, understanding it to be a branding tool used by corporations for dressing garden-variety consumerism up as iconoclastic rebellion for folks feeling so cowed and trapped by society that they’ll take flattery any way it comes. This is a promising, poignant subject for an action movie, particularly considering that the genre historically flatters the male ego in the same fashion to the same end. And the film’s opening is ideally perched right on the tonal fence separating straight-faced purplish-ness from self-conscious absurdity, introducing Harley Davidson (Mickey Rourke) as he stands alone in a loft in the middle of the night, looking through a window at the sky as Fourth of July fireworks explode into the ripe darkness. In a nearby bed, conveniently visibly naked, is a beautiful woman, soon understood to be just one of Harley’s many conquests, while the radio broadcasts a bulletin about an addictive new drug on the streets. Something snaps in Harley, causing him to hit the open road. Cue Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” which plays on the film’s soundtrack over a montage as Harley glides his Davidson through a series of desert tableaus that complement him as a man who’s impossible to tame or tether.
The song choice is deliriously apropos. Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man evokes the aesthetic of videos by Bon Jovi, Meat Loaf, and Aerosmith, to name but a few, as it’s similarly rich in wide, gauzy vistas and late-1980s-era rowdiness that testifies to a white male’s right to wander the country while fighting, slinging back bourbon, and, most importantly, setting every big-breasted, torn-jean-clad woman’s full lips aquiver in grateful anticipation of his presence. Harley connects with his old buddy, Marlboro Man (Don Johnson), and the two alternately volley pensées regarding their destiny to die relatively young, confidently broke, and incomparably studly, because, lest we need reminding, they’re men who walk to the sound of their own drummer, one day at a time, against the tide of comfort and complacency. In one of the more amusing bits, Marlboro Man’s ironically outed as a born-again non-smoker, as he sucks an unlit cigarette like a pacifier, craving the image, but not the practical health consequences, of a several-packs-a-day bad boy. Glancing visual jokes establish the film as being set arbitrarily in the future, as gas costs over three dollars a gallon and Die Hard V: Die Hardest is apparently burning up the multiplexes. Those predictions proved prescient, and so did the problem that ultimately plagues this modern-day Butch and Sundance: corporate gentrification, which is leading to the destruction of Harley and Marlboro’s favorite bar, a saloon that represents a last signpost of the wild-western machismo that’s being systematically stamped out by the Man.
Rourke, Johnson, and director Simon Wincer lay the wounded mythopoetic shtick on thick, and it’s initially refreshing to encounter something that appears to understand just how lousily glib Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid really is, but the film’s intentionally crass sexism and racism are amusing for maybe 20 minutes until the air leaks out of the figurative tires. Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man is one passable joke stretched out over 98 minutes with nothing in the way of a real movie to support it. Every scene is the same, following Rourke and Johnson as they make self-congratulatory sport of the egotism of cowboy-biker archetypes; they’re both terrific actors, but these roles play too comfortably into their propensities for tediously smug detachment. The film fails to capture the operatic pull of the self-pity that’s coursing through the veins of the movies, videos, and beer commercials under its lens. There’s certainly nothing here to match the lunatic formal grandiosity that Michael Bay would soon bring to Meat Loaf’s similarly have-it-both-ways video for “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).” Because parody, of course, is ultimately utilized by the filmmakers as a not-so-insidious excuse to revel in behaviors that are typically celebrated by action films anyway (namely shoot and fuck first, ask questions never), but even that hypocrisy has little sting.
The image boasts a hot, rough charm that fits the film. Foreground textures, most memorably of faces and clothing, boast exceptional detail. Colors, particularly reds and blacks, are bold and intense. Background textures are soft and white lighting is often somewhat bright and shrill, but these issues, which suit the film’s twilight masculine aura, scan as being inherent to the aesthetic. This is a generally appealing, attractive picture, and the soundtrack has been mixed with an appropriate sense of heft and body. Those bikes really roar, and the pristine songs are ready for play at maximum, ear-bleeding volume.
Just the theatrical trailer, and a short, tongue-in-cheek featurette that was produced at the time of the film’s release. Nothing to see here, which strikes this critic as a missed opportunity. A Mickey Rourke/Don Johnson audio commentary could have been one of the home-video events of the year.
Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man remains a legendary title in search of a film to match it.