Friday, November 1, 2013

BMX Bandits (1983)... Noel's Pick for November


P.J. and Goose are a pair of teens who want nothing more than to spend every day popping wheelies on their BMX bikes. They're quickly joined by Judy, to whom they offer to make up for accidentally costing her a job by promising to help get some wheels of her own... just as soon as they can afford repairs for their bikes, which were also damaged in the accident. They ponder their options, and during a failed attempt to gather clams, they come across a mysterious package hidden beneath the water.

The Boss has led his gang through a series of successful and sensational bank heists, and now plots to rob an armored truck. Key to the mission are a set of walkie talkies keyed to police frequencies, so he sends two of his goons, Whitey and Moustache, to retrieve the package, which has been hidden beneath the water.

Sure enough, the packages are one and the same as the kids decide to cash in on the fancy walkie talkies by selling them to other kids in the area, thus getting their bikes all tricked out and Judy popping wheelies on one of her own. Whitey and Moustache don't take long to catch up, and the chase begins as they pursue our teen trio through a graveyard, in and out of a mall, and down a waterslide, all to the accompaniment of slickly shot BMX bike stunts overlaid with synth whoosh and zap noises.

The plot of this story is about as basic as you can get, roughly there just to string along a set of circumstances where our kids' team of professional stunt riders (including a man in a wig as Judy) show off their pops and spins and jumps off of conveniently placed ramp-like objects, as well as some great stunt driving as the goons skid after the kids in their increasingly trashed muscle car. There's a lot of fun energy to these sequences, as the crew literally just looked around town for places it would be neat to run a bike through, and built little bits and stunts around what they found. The editing is smooth and quick, the camera always crisply framed, with some great shots where it's mounted right on the bikes and cars in question. It's all silly and predictable and basic, but I'll be damned if I don't always have a smile on my face as bright as the pastel color codings of our heroes.

What really pulls me into the film are the lead kids. There's just as little on paper for them to work with as there is the plot, but there's a improvisational flourish which again elevates it a bit as P.J. and Goose have a comfortable banter they've grown up with, and Judy instantly settles into their exchanges as she becomes the kindred spirit they never knew they were missing. The original plan of the story was to have a romance develop between her and P.J., but this was axed as we see both boys show an interest in her, only for her to gently turn them down and insist on keeping relations with both platonic. It settles into a surprisingly refreshing dynamic, especially for the 80s, where the boys accept that the girl doesn't need to be into one of them to be a part of the group who's seen as an equal.

Well, I say equal, but Judy does still spend most of the climax as a damsel in distress. She does do her part to annoy and sabotage the baddies after she's been snatched, but the boys get to do all the action as they race after in pursuit. Part of this is because Judy was originally written as a much more token "girl" role, but the charisma of the actress caught the director's eye, so he again improvised and bumped her presence up. I wish he could have retooled the climax a bit, but it is what it is.

And that actress playing Judy is Nicole Kidman, all of 15 at the time and already a head taller than most of her male co-stars. Her height actually lends her a good physicality in the role, even though that's not her doing most of the bike riding. Her elvish grin and mop of red hair are also endlessly charming as she trades barbs with the boys, both of whom are also wonderfully natural in their parts. Jame Lugton gives Goose that gangly wit as he snaps out one-liners and recounts horror movie plots at inappropriate moments. He fell out of acting for a while, but it's nice to see he's come back to the game in the last decade. Angelo D'Angelo is the reverse, having had a pretty strong career in both supporting and lead roles up to the late 90s before disappearing. It's not hard to see why he kept on as, even here, he has an impressively toned physique, good looks, a leading-man spring in his step, and crisp delivery that holds its own in the banter.

The bad guys are an interesting lot, with Moustache and Whitey looking like low-rent costume party impersonations of Freddy Mercury and Billy Idol. John Ley and David Argue have a wirey physicality as they dive head first into likely painful gags and prat falls in their pursuit of the kids. It does get too cartoony at times, and there are moments where their constant arguing over who gets to drive does grate, but there are some really fun and memorable moments, like the horror movie pursuit through the graveyard as they don hideous goblin masks, or Whitey's little dance on the speedboat, or the genuinely creepy moment where they corner Judy... until it gets all goofy again. And Bryan Marshall is fine as The Boss, there just isn't much to the character as he's the typical White Guy In Suit Tony and I kept encountering in Automan and Street Hawk.

The film leads up to a major climax where our leads gather together an army of dozens of other kids on BMX bikes - all of whom hope to use the reward money on the crooks to pay for a BMX track they can all share - chase after the villains and take down armed goons with a barrage of pelted bags of flour. It's a chaotic mess of a sequence, but in all the right ways. The climax does unfortunately go beyond that, with a weak chase capped by a pointless gag as everyone becomes covered in soap bubbles, but then the theme song, "Ready to Fly" by the Papers, kicks in as we see all the kids celebrating their new BMX track with a series of races. Which all three of our heroes win, of course.

This is not a great film. It's a good kids film, but I can see how the pace can be wonky, the constant "bah ba-dah, bah bah dah" score can grate, the endless silliness of the bad guys can pedal the roll of an eye, and all the general goofery and BMX worship can be a bit much for an adult to enjoy, and so I don't expect Angie and Jak to like this film all that much, if at all. For me, though, every viewing burrows deep into my nostalgia. Which is weird, not only because I was never so into bike riding that I ever really knew what BMX meant, but because I never saw this film as a kid. I caught it on a movie channel about four years ago for the first time, loved the hell out of it, even kept an eye out for a future airing so I could let it be the first thing I'd taped with my VCR in about a decade (the only available DVDs at the time were crummy pan&scan releases and what aired on the movie channel was the gorgeous widescreen print which now graces a Blu-Ray). It's become one of those films I throw on a couple times a year just to cheer myself up, and it's nestled right into my nostalgia sweet spots alongside the likes of The Wizard and Goonies and Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers: The Movie. I really adore this movie, and I'm glad its cult popularity is again starting to catch on.

Jak? Angie? Are you ready to fly?


With Rad just three months behind us, I was prepared for more of the same from BMX Bandits. I nodded when it started off with the same kind of stylized angles and closeups of masked bicycle action featuring the two adolescent leads. "Yes, this is about right." Then the pig-masked bank job happened, I straightened up in my seat a bit, and wondered just where the movie was going to take us with this.

The two leads' lines were completely unnatural, full of one-liners and obvious setups, like the dialogue ethic of Kevin Smith filtered through late night talk show monologue authors. Once I got accustomed to their cadence and meter, I found them likeable and charming. The goons tended toward overacting, particularly Moustache, though it didn't stand out nearly as much as it would in a picture that's played straighter. I felt Judy provided a nice complement to the duo's dynamic, as opposed to being an overly obnoxious foil or over-wrought wedge, which is how I find the "potential love interest" is usually written to be in these kinds of movies.

And even as I say "these kinds of movies", what kind of movie IS this? For starters, it's one that's not afraid to dip into a number of genres and wildly varied setpieces. I can't think of another film off the top of my head that has a graveyard chase sequence and bicycles going through water slides. That's not to say that all of the sequences worked. The chase that made up the third quarter of the movie really began to drag to the point that I needed to think a bit to remember what the plot was again. As a whole, it's a cartoonish adventure picture that I found enjoyable enough. Really, expecting much more than "enjoyable enough" from a children's movie as an adult would be as ridiculous as that ending song. My goodness.


The first time I heard of the film BMX Bandits, it was because it was mentioned by another blogger friend as one of his favorite childhood films. Beyond the fact that it starred Nicole Kidman, I knew nothing about it. Rad had already taught me I wasn’t interested in BMX bikes at all, but I left those feelings at the door and approached the film unbiased.

The end result is that I don’t necessarily like this movie, but I don’t dislike it either. I like that the plot is set up early and keeps moving throughout, and there’s a strong 80s flavor to the action and comedy, not to mention the outfits. Being Australian rather than American, I also noticed a trait somewhat close to what I think of as British humor, particularly in the line delivery of our three young stars.

Beyond that, there’s not a whole lot to say. The incredibly noticeable male stunt double for Nicole Kidman in her "show off" scene makes you wonder why they decided to keep that moment in at all. I suppose because without it, she’s not much more than the damsel in distress Noel mentions. I was glad to see her hold her own once she was captured, but it still is a little disappointing that they always chose her for such situations.

The chase scene is also overly long to me. While they do their best to keep changing the setting and having different things happen, and I enjoy some of the camera angles they use, there’s only so many ways I can watch kids weave through obstacles on bikes and a car barrel through things, and I just got bored with it. It feels too much like they were padding the film for time. A lot of the jokes are aimed just a little too young, as well, so that watching it as an adult, I’m more likely to roll my eyes than to laugh (they run into a thing of women’s underwear! Now they’re all covered in soap bubbles!) On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if the writers of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure saw this film and loved it. If not, it’s a fun coincidence that both films feature extended water slide scenes and people causing havoc in a mall.

While I can’t say I would ever watch this film again, it wasn't a painful experience either. If I had seen it as a kid, I might have felt differently.


I totally get why BMX Bandits didn't do much to click with either of you. As you say, Angie, it does aim quite young, and yes, Jak, it's really damn ridiculous. For me, that's the magic of it, that it takes my mind back to being a kid as I race alongside the chase scenes with the same zeal with which I once staged entire epics with my G.I. Joes. It's the type of movie where kid me would absolutely love to hang out with these teens I'd never meet in real life, while running and toying with the safety-scissor dangers of gangsters who don't exist. There is a dark edge to the film, with real weapons, and masked thugs lurking in the dark shadows of graves, but all threats are traversible as a popped wheelie causes danger to turn on itself in a goofy, stumbling scuffle, so any sense of menace comes with the promise of a Metos grin at the amusing way in which it's overcome.

Very few films are able to take me back to this headspace. I mentioned a few, all of which are tied not only to the feelings of childhood, but the actual experience of having seen them as a child. What surprises me about BMX Bandits is that I have yet to encounter another recent discovery that enmeshes itself so thoroughly in this part of my nostalgia that it conveys that exact same mindset, where I actually experience that child-like squee instead of merely appreciating it as some form of critical contextualization. It's a weird thing, and I still don't entirely know how to explain it beyond this.

But that's a personal reaction, one that's very much singular to me, and so I can't be surprised (and I wasn't) that the two of you didn't have the same reaction. And yet, I'm glad you didn't hate it. It didn't entirely click, but it also sounds like it didn't entirely annoy the crap out of you either, and that you both did have some measure of fun. Which is all I was really hoping for. :)

We'll be back on the 1st of December with a pick from Jak: The Last Dragon (1985)


Tony Williams said...

The fact that the first really BMX-centric film is Australian is really interesting. The explosion in the popularity of BMX in the States is largely credited to E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, with its climactic chase scene where the kids elude the Feds on BMX bikes. In particular Japanese bike maker Kuwahara (the brand of Elliot's bike in the movie) benefited.

By the time Rad came along in '86, BMX had gone mainstream, and you also saw the ride of BMX Freestyle. Not just flatland, but also the vert ramp stuff as evidenced in the opening of the film.

Sadly the box office failure of Rad pretty much put a damper on BMX-centric films, so Noel I can't recommend any more for you to torture Angie and Jak with :p (Though I do have several how-to Freestyle videos from the 80s, one complete with cheesy music from Michael "Maniac" Sembello, that are yours for the asking).

Strannik said...

Honestly, this sounds like the kind of movie I would have loved as a kid.I probably would've eaten up combination of stunts and kids having adventures. Assuming it ever reached Russia...

As an aside - it's really weird seeing Nicole Kidman that young. But then, the next generation would probably feel the same way about Jennifer Lawrence.