When the going gets tough…the tough take the law into their own hands.
Let’s get this out of the way upfront: I have always unabashedly loved the 1991 buddy action movie Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. I know that it is, at times, sloppily made. I know that it is often profoundly stupid, down to the fact that no one bothered clearing the use of either “Harley Davidson” or “The Marlboro Man” and, as such, have to open the movie with an enormous disclaimer to that effect. I know that Mickey Rourke is openly miserable through most of the movie — a fact confirmed by interviews with the actor years after the fact. The movie has a lot going against it. It is still awesome.
Rourke (Angel Heart) and Don Johnson (Cold in July) are the titular Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, the first a biker and the latter a cowboy, both outlaws in the then-future of 1996 Los Angeles. When their friend’s bar is facing demolition, Harley and Marlboro decide to rob an armored car to save it. However, they end up not with money but with bags of Crystal Dream, a new designer drug that leads them to white collar criminal Chance Wilder (Tom Sizemore, Heat) and his team of assassins led by Daniel Baldwin (Vampires).
Though most casual moviegoers might look at something like Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and dismiss it as crude, stupid trash, I do not (or, perhaps more accurately, I love it for precisely those reasons). Admittedly, I’m in the bag for this one. I’m a lifelong fan of both the buddy action movie and of stars Rourke and Johnson, the former of whom squandered most of his chances and the former of whom never really got the opportunities he should have on the big screen. The movie also has a deep bench of character actors and future stars, many of whom were not famous at the time it was made: Giancarlo Esposito, Vanessa Williams, Tia Carrere, Chelsea Field, Kelly Hu, Robert Ginty (The Exterminator) — even pro wrestler Big John Studd gets a memorable turn in a supporting role.
But more than just the actors involved, I think my affection for Harley and Marlboro is a result of the work done by perpetually underrated Australian director Simon Wincer, who is also responsible for the equally underrated B-movie classics The Phantom and Quigley Down Under. Wincer knows what movie he is making and does it well. The film is essentially a western: Butch and Sundance pull a job, the job goes bad and the Bolivian army comes after them — only here the Bolivian army is a couple of hitmen in trench coats who are practically robotic in their relentlessness (one of my favorite visual gags in the movie sees them marching forward and jumping over a wall of fire without missing a step). The first time we really get a look at Rourke, he’s standing silhouetted in a doorway, a beautiful naked woman lying in bed across from him, Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” cueing up on the soundtrack. Wincer is not hiding his intentions. This is a straight up B-movie western, and a fun one at that.
There’s a thick streak of humor running through this, the only produced script by actor-turned-writer (and eventually director) Don Michael Paul. Sometimes it’s because something is so goofy and dumb you can’t help but laugh; the bad names don’t stop with the title characters, but extend to almost everyone in the film. Tom Sizemore plays a villain named Chance Wilder. Eloy Casados (Hollywood Homicide) is named Jose Cuervo. Chelsea Field of Lord of Illusions plays a cop named Virgina Slim. I’M NOT KIDDING. These were things people put in a movie. Other times, though, the humor is totally deliberate, whether it’s in the timing of a security guard saying “Pros would have used my keys” or in Don Johnson’s wry, world-weary delivery of sarcastic one liner after sarcastic one liner. And while the action isn’t always top-notch, it gets the job done and celebrates the kind of practical pyrotechnics and 2nd unit stunt work that rarely exists anymore.
Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man arrives on Blu-ray at long last thanks to the good people at Shout! Factory, who appear to be splitting what remains of the MGM catalogue with fellow boutique labels Kino Lorber Studio Classics and Olive Films. The movie has found a good home at Shout!, getting a decent 1080p HD upgrade in its original 1.85:1 widescreen. The transfer lacks the polish of the best remasters, but Harley and Marlboro has always been rough around the edges — why shouldn’t the Blu-ray be, too? Colors are generally good and signs of aging have been curbed for the most part. The lossless stereo audio track handles the dialogue well and comes to life during the action scenes; it may lack the nuance of a true 5.1 mix, but “nuance” is not something this movie does well anyway.
The only bonus features included are a vintage production featurette and the original theatrical trailer, which manages to sell a movie even dopier than this while still accurately representing the finished film.
Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man is a relic of the early ‘90s — a time when a goofy, violent action movie with a dumb name could get a wide release in theaters and land with a thud both critically and commercially. But the passage of time and countless late night cable airings have been good to the movie, building it a cult audience over the last 25 years. As someone who has liked the movie since that first theatrical screening in ’91, it’s rewarding to revisit it on Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray and discover that it’s every bit as ridiculously entertaining as it’s always been. My biggest disappointment about Harley and Marlboro is that it never got a sequel.
It’s better to be dead and cool than alive and uncool.