By sheer math, Jeff Nichols' The Bikeriders adds up to a success. Inspired by Danny Lyon's 1967 photo book chronicling the Outlaws Motorcycle Club, The Bikeriders is about as enjoyable to sift through — but not actually dive into — as, well, a coffee table book despite its raw star power (Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, and Jodie Comer lead the movie), the amusing choices by those stars, and a base-line of unmistakable filmmaking competency.

The Bikeriders review

Austin Butler in The Bikeriders.
A still from The Bikeriders courtesy of Focus Features.

Ostensibly, the centerpiece of The Bikeriders is Austin Butler's Benny, a precocious, second-in-command of the Vandals, the gang of ruffians led by Tom Hardy's Johnny.

Early on, Benny locks eyes with Kathy (Jodie Comer, having fun with the mid-century Illinois accent). It's love at first sight, apparently, and the crazy kids are soon hitting the open road with the Vandals. This, we are meant to believe, is what it's all about.

The James Dean-ifying of Butler is a bit overplayed. Benny spends most of the film broodingly finishing cigarettes in leather jackets while gloriously backlit — but Austin Butler does bring undeniable screen presence. He's still stuck in the Elvis voice, too (principal photography wrapped in October 2022).

As for his character? Just your run-of-the-mill, lost-soul-of-few-words, looking for community — or really some dudes to shoot pool, drink Jack, act macho, and bottle up insecurities with. Nuff said, I guess!

Comer and Hardy are the backbones of the movie. Comer's “narration”, via interviews with a journalist (Mike Faist) — cribbed from Kathy's real-life tapes, which feel like Nichols' only primary source — are overly relied upon to explain to the audience why the easy-to-understand things happening on screen are happening.

Eventually, the film realizes it should ride with Johnny. The midwestern Brando twang is on the nose (you'll see why) but Hardy's weathered gravitas — buoyed by smart glimpses into his domestic life — add welcome heft, especially as the Vandals's saga turns increasingly violent. (I started to wonder what a fleshed-out TV series would look like. Then it came to me.)

No bikes in Bikeriders?

For as little as we learn about these people or understand the profound allure of the Vandals — there are barely any conversations about the motorcycles themselves; they are not characters either — Hardy squeezes enough out of Johnny's arc to make us care about at least one person's fate.

Nichols obviously knows how to cleverly stretch a budget to create enough of a milieu. The needle drops are expertly deployed to layer verve onto a plot with less natural momentum than the rebellious Harley-Davidson riders might suggest.

The film utilizes superb character actors — beyond Hardy and Comer — to juice the entertainment value. Norman Reedus and Michael Shannon (with not one, but two monologues!) are cooking.

The film hums when it is loose and nonchalant and leans into lower-stakes comedy. This is a Linklater hang, not a Scorsese romp. (The ginned-up Bikeriders marketing presents it as a throwback summer hoot, rather than gritty, awards-fare, as the festival-season black and white still would have you think. The release was pushed from December to June.)

Should you watch The Bikeriders?

Tom Hardy, Austin Butler.
A still from The Bikeriders courtesy of Focus Features.

Watching The Bikeriders, I couldn't help but think of another buzzy 2024 release, Challengers. Both are mid-budgeted films, relying on prestige-ish filmmakers, zeitgeist-y Dune co-stars, and scene-stealing soundtracks to compensate for mid storytelling. Neither are particularly interested in interrogating their characters beyond a few notes.

And yet…it’s all captivating, entertaining, and poignant enough to satisfy. You can ultimately feel Nichols has a casual affinity for the milieu, even if he doesn’t exactly capture what that is.

There's an allure to hanging out. Well, until people start getting stabbed.

Grade: B-

The Bikeriders will be released on June 21.