06 August 2008

I run tire treads over my own nostalgia

Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991)
Directed by Simon Wincer. Starring Mickey Rourke, Don Johnson, Tom Sizemore, Daniel Baldwin, Chelsea Field.

You can have nostalgia for a film you’ve never seen. Perhaps the poster struck you, or the time it came out in theaters was a memorable one in your life. Whatever the reason, the movie’s existence—not the movie itself—has some important meaning for you.

One of those movies for me is 1991’s Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, an action picture with a slight futuristic angle (it takes place five years in the future, which is now twelve years in our past) starring the rapidly falling stars of Mickey Rourke and Don Jonson. The film memorably hefts a commercial-heavy title, but the reason I had a nostalgic soft-spot for an A-budgeted version of ‘B’ biker flick is that it came out in theaters the last week of August, right before I went away to college for my freshman year. It was the end of my old world, and the beginning of another, and when I saw the film’s tagline on its posters—“SUMMER’S LAST BLAST!”—the realization of how my life was about to change was immense. The bittersweet “goodbye to all that” of the end of that summer is linked in my mind to posters, ads, and reviews for Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man.

This week, in a random attack of nostalgia (does becoming an uncle do these sorts of things to you?), I decided to actually rent the damn thing and watch it.

Cripes, that was a mistake.

My nostalgia isn’t ruined, but Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man works better as a film you might want to see, rather than something you have seen. It’s a tired and cliché exercise in a biker action flick that would have been much more entertaining if made as a 1960s or ‘70s drive-in or grindhouse exploitation film. It needs more sleaze to keep it entertaining, and even if it makes feints at that in its raunchy language and topless shots in the first few minutes, it still ends up as a very generic action picture in the standard style of the day, when “action” consisted of two kinds: 1) shooting a gun while standing in the open; 2) shooting a gun while taking cover. The most entertaining thing about the movie is the big n’ bold disclaimer in a thick font that pops up before the M-G-M logo even appears, informing everyone that none of the characters’ commercialized names are an endorsement, and no company put up money for their names to be used. The filmmakers were probably terrified that someone might mistake their movie for a cigarette commercial.

I did also enjoy the hilarious sight of Daniel Baldwin leading around a team of killers hired by the evil futuristic bank who dress in long leather nehru-collar trenchcoats that make them look like a mix of German performance artists and Benedictine monks. This must be a nod to the semi-cyberpunk future, but since nothing else in the film smacks of futurist anything, the weird design just comes off like a pack of guys who contracted a James Bond villain to cobble together their costumes. (“No, really, you’ll be totally incognito in these coats!”)

I know I’ll make movie nostalgia mistakes in the years to come. There will be some pleasant surprises as well. But sad to say, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man ruined my appreciation of its existence.