[Screen It]

(2003) (Laurence Fishburne, Derek Luke) (PG-13)

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Drama: Following the death of his father, a young rebel decides to take on the local champion of off-track motorcycle racing.
In the underground world of off-track motorcycle racing, Smoke (LAURENCE FISHBURNE) is the undisputed champion. President of the Black Knights motorcycle club, he's yet to be defeated, although various other rulers, such as Dogg (KID ROCK) of The Strays, are always gunning for this throne. Even so, and with the help of his mechanic, Slick Will, and other members such as Soul Train (ORLANDO JONES), Smoke has yet to meet his match on the road.

That's about to change, however, if a young upstart, Kid (DEREK LUKE), has his way. Six months after his father's death, the defiant but ambitious 18-year-old wants to take on Smoke, but the champ won't race him until he joins a club and wins enough races to build a reputation for himself.

With the help of his fellow hustler, Stuntman (BRENDAN FEHR), and their new friend, Primo (RICK GONZALEZ), however, they decide to form their own club, Biker Boyz, and focus on winning enough races so that Kid can take on Smoke. He and other leaders such as Motherland (DJIMON HOUNSOU) acknowledge the new club, but Kid's widowed mother, Anita (VANESSA BELL CALLOWAY), isn't happy that her son is racing in the same profession that took her husband's life.

As Kid starts seeing tattoo artist Tina (MEAGAN GOOD) and Smoke gets back with his former girl, Queenie (LISA BONET), little do the two realize how their lives are about to be changed by the pivotal race and revelations that occur and lead up to it.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Any number of activities, pastimes or careers can be immensely satisfying, enjoyable and exciting to those participating in them. The same can sometimes even hold true for those who follow or observe them as they get caught up in the action.

Yet, and unless one is watching a documentary about some such activity, the use of it as the topic of a movie doesn't necessarily mean viewers will have the same reaction. Unless one is a true fan, the likes of sky diving, kite flying or piano playing can't carry a picture by themselves.

The same holds true for off-track motorcycle racing, whether it's of the illegal variety or not. In person, racing down a road at unheard of speeds is probably quite a rush. That's particularly true when one factors in the possibility of glory, arrest and potential injury or even death awaiting the participants at or on the way to the finish line.

Spectators may feel some of that if in the presence of such a race, but it's hard to capture or recreate the same sensation on film. In short, there are only so many ways one can present such material in a movie, especially when it's just straight line drag racing.

Accordingly, writer/director Reggie Rock Bythewood ("Dancing in September") and co-writer Craig Fernandez (making his debut) have added the obligatory dramatic elements to pad such moments in "Biker Boyz." Based on the "New Times" article by Michael Gougis -- which was written after he was allowed access into the inner circle of such street racing and biker clubs -- the film bears a striking resemblance to "The Fast and the Furious."

That film featured a four-wheeled homage to testosterone and master/apprentice rivalries. This one jettisons two of those wheels as well as the undercover cop angle in favor of more straightforward teen angst material, but it's otherwise pretty much the same movie.

For fans of the sport, there's plenty of footage featuring the muscle bikes racing down the road as well as all sorts of riding stunts that somewhat come off as the cinematic and motorized equivalent of a rodeo. There's also something of an insider look at the biker culture, its competitiveness and rivalries.

As was the case with that Vin Diesel film, testosterone flows as readily as any other sort of fuel and there's more than enough chest thumping bravado to spare. Bythewood tries to capture all of that as well as the energy of the races themselves by utilizing a number of camera tricks and edits.

While not altogether successful at that (the high speed races never look like they're reaching the obscene speeds indicated on the speedometers), at least such moments don't call as much undue attention to themselves as I've seen in other such films. That is, except for some "tunnel vision" type moments (representing Smoke's intensity before and during a race) that are exceptionally ludicrous, especially when flashback moments are projected on the "walls" of said tunnel.

While various rivalries are present, the main one involves the young, angry and near constantly perturbed young man -- Derek Luke playing a role that's rather similar to the one he did in "Antwone Fisher" but without the same sort of believable depth - and the "King of Cali" played by the perpetually cool Laurence Fishburne (the "Matrix" films, "What's Love Got To Do With It").

As if that wasn't enough for a simple movie like this, the filmmakers have also thrown in something of an Oedipal theme (minus the mother marrying bit) to their rivalry and relationship. While that's supposed to add dramatic depth to the proceedings, all it really ends up doing is tapping some murky melodrama. Worse yet, it robs the film of its most precious commodity and that's its momentum. A film like this needs to keep moving forward and once it slows down or stops it risks getting mired in the mud.

In fact, things get so downright hokey and unsatisfactory that an attendee at our screening - an actual biker - yelled out that he felt gypped and wanted his money back (even though he got in for free). For all the street racing that occurs during the rest of the film, the conclusion occurs on - of all places - a country road in the middle of a farm.

While there's no doubt about how the race will turn out - although its conclusion drew a chorus of boos from our screening audience - the sudden western motif is rather jarring and gives the film an altogether different feel from what was earlier presented. Bythewood states in the press kit that he always wanted to make a contemporary western, but this decidedly urban story wasn't the right material with which to do that.

Although the dialogue and plot eventually desert them, Fishburne and Luke manage to keep their characters interesting for most of the film, with the former smartly playing off his trademark screen charisma and magnetism. Vanessa Bell Calloway ("The Brothers," "Daylight") plays the standard worried mother bit, while Meagan Good ("Deliver Us From Eva," "3 Strikes") embodies the obligatory love interest that does nothing for the story. The same holds true for Lisa Bonet ("High Fidelity," "Angel Heart") who plays the same part to Fishburne's character.

Meanwhile, the performances by Orlando Jones ("The Time Machine," "Evolution"), Kid Rock ("Joe Dirt"), Djimon Hounsou ("The Four Feathers," "Gladiator"), Brendan Fehr ("The Forsaken," "Final Destination"), Rick Gonzalez ("The Rookie," "Prince of Central Park") and others are pretty much what you'd expect from a film like this, with some being decent and others less so.

Maybe I would have enjoyed the film more if I was really into motorcycle street racing, but I just don't think there was enough material here to make a feature length film, particularly when "The Fast and the Furious" covered rather similar ground. With some okay racing footage but a dramatic story that becomes so leaden that it drags down the entire production (and its nearly two hour running time), "Biker Boyz" doesn't get the viewer's engine racing as fast or as hard as it should. It rates as just a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed January 29, 2003 / Posted January 31, 2003

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