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Lone Hero
(2002)
 

Director: Ken Sanzel            
Cast:
Lou Diamond Phillips, Sean Patrick Flanery, Robert Forster


I once said that I liked a good ol' motorcycle movie, but sometime later I realized that, with the exception of the absolutely insane and over-the-top Stone Cold, I honestly couldn't think of a motorcycle movie that (overall) I could honestly recommend to someone without hesitation. Let me make that clearer - though I have liked documentaries on motorcycles and their riders (On Any Sunday and Biker Dreams), I am talking about biker movies that are geared towards the exploitation market. This may seem strange - after all, biker movies seem to have the stuff a trash movie fan like myself would love, like characters who take crap from no one, senseless violence, and the inevitable appearances of motorcycle mamas.

Sometimes I have found one or two ingredients in these movies executed pretty well, and I'm pretty sure my fond memories of those rare exceptional moments temporarily deluded me on that particular lazy day into thinking there were plenty of good motorcycle movies. After some lengthy and seriously thought, I can now safely say that I find motorcycle movies, even those with one or two redeeming moments, a real bore. The characters are so dumb and aggressively one-note in their chortling and sneering, the action is badly choreographed and lame in itself, and erotic material is either totally missing or seemingly geared to be PG-level at the most. Even variations to the formula, like a gay motorbike gang (The Pink Angels) or an all-female biker gang (She-Devils On Wheels) I have found fall flat. As I said, apart from Stone Cold, I can never recall a biker movie that I've truly liked. Well, there is The Stranger, though that's more packaged as a supernatural revenge actioner. So when I came across Lone Hero, I was fully prepared to hate it; not only was it a biker movie, but it starred Lou Diamond Phillips, an actor I've never been very fond of. Imagine my surprise when I discovered - well, I don't know if I can say I truly liked it, but at the same time I can't say I loathed or even simply disliked it.

Unlike just about all biker movies, Lone Hero doesn't take place in the deserts of the American southwest, but instead takes place in the wooded and mountainous wilderness of Montana. (How did you guess this movie was filmed in Canada?) Not long after the If bikers bathed more often, they wouldn't have that pesky rat problemmovie begins, we are introduced to the hero, John (Flanery, Boondock Saints), a resident of the small town of Profit who isn't exactly living a satisfying life. The only thing that seems to be keeping John's town alive is its cheesy wild west theme park, with John employed as one of the cowboys involved in the absolutely pathetic shootout recreations the park puts on for the equally pathetic number of visiting tourists. Making the situation even more unbearable is that John's girlfriend Sharon (Tanya Allen) has been accepted to UCLA and will have to leave soon, leaving no one for John to connect with except Gus (Forster), the friendly grizzled trick shooter at the park. The frustration John is obviously experiencing seems to come to a peak when one night at the local bar, a sadistic biker by the name of Bart (Phillips) and a pal of his not only beat up the owner of the bar and rob him while John and the other patrons remain utterly helpless, but remove the remaining after-hours entertainment in town by firing a shotgun round into the jukebox, as well as the pool table. A man can only take so much, so the next day when John sees Bart and his pal wandering around the park, he decides to make a bluff with his blank-loaded pistol and attempt a citizen's arrest. Surprisingly, it works, and the two bikers are quickly thrown behind bars. Bart quickly makes clear that he has a lot of friends, and that when they hear he's in the slammer they won't be very happy.... well, you can more or less guess what subsequently happens that soon causes John to be dodging real bullets for the first time.

If you think you see a western in disguise here, you are absolutely right. We have all the standard characters here, as you've probably realized already; we have the sneering and smartass modernization of "Black Bart" with Phillips' character, Before he made a comeback with "Jackie Brown", Forster used to invite Flanery over to his placewe have the untough but honest and principled hero (John) who soon finds himself over his head in trouble, and there is the old-time loner with the shady past that is skilled with firearms (Gus) who ends up giving our hero a hand. Of course, like in those old westerns, Gus lives in isolation from the rest of the community and gives out hints of his law-breaking past, though these hints are appropriately modernized such as when he says at one point, "There is a reason why I live out here with no phone and no mail box." As for the remaining characters of the community, you probably correctly guessed that they are complete cowards who don't want to get involved, and these yellow-bellies are lead by a man more cowardly than they are, who foolishly thinks he can negotiate with words with the (motorbike) riders. Of course, the only exception coming from these townspeople being the spunky female squeeze of the hero, who inevitably get kidnapped by the villain at one point. There are numerous other western touches, such as the fact one of the mountains near the town has an abandoned mine where the hero hides out at one point. We've seen all these things before, but so what? In this context it's fun, seeing how they've translated all this stuff in a modern setting. It certainly gets silly at times, such as the sight of the hell-raising bandits riding motorbikes past the 100+ year old buildings of the park, but you can't help but smile a little.

In fact, one of the chief strengths of Lone Hero is that it doesn't take itself completely seriously, which is another big difference this movie has with the typical biker movie. It wisely doesn't go all the way to the other end of the spectrum and become a relentless gag-a-minute slapstick comedy, which wouldn't have worked - biker movies are already straining for credibility even before they begin. It's a subtle, almost hidden kind of humor that's doubly pleasing, coming from the joy of its discovery as well as the humor itself. The opening wild west shootout done for the tourists is so cheesy and so pathetic, especially since none of its participants seems to have a clue that they are humiliating themselves, that it makes you laugh. Equally funny is when after the show, John's boss takes him aside and tells him to play a bandit successfully it is necessary for him to "visualize more," and then after the arrest pleads with John to be willing to exploit the deed, explaining that among other nearby small towns Profit is "getting killed in the battle of ghost town supremacy." The humor has a similar dry tone through most of the movie despite what may be happening; when Bart and his pals burn down a church for kicks near the beginning, one of them observes that maybe it's now time for them to leave Idaho. Still, the movie isn't afraid to occasionally go for a real laugh-out-loud moment when it has the opportunity; Bart's first appearance has him wearing nothing but a yellow pair of boxers with a big happy face on them drawn in black ink.

After playing so many tough-guy roles with the utmost of seriousness, it's nice to see Phillips loosen up to the point where he's willing to have a little fun poked at him. His role as Bart also gives him a chance to play something he's almost never done elsewhere in his career - play a villain. What ironic about this is just from this role alone, Phillips proves to be more convincing as a "YOW! That gun barrel is cold!"villain than any of his heroic tough-guy roles. He doesn't play Bart as a sneering fearless dumb thug, but one with a range of emotion (occasionally even giving off flashes of fear on his face) as well as possessing a believable amount of intelligence and logical thinking despite his totally depraved attitude. Phillips may want to consider playing villains for the remainder of his career, because he certainly has the stuff that's needed to make a movie villain both threatening yet plausible. Another actor in the movie who fits very comfortably in the role assigned to him is Robert Forster. He allows himself to look grizzled and unkempt (even revealing that he's thinning of hair on the top of his head), and he wears his unmanaged appearance like a glove, albeit one that hasn't seen a washing machine for some time. His voice and mannerism has that weariness you associate with older people who have seen and done it all, so you don't question his decision to get involved in such a dangerous situation.

In fact, Forster is much more engaging than Flanery's character. While I wouldn't exactly say Flanery gives a simply awful performance, it's more like awfully bland and uninvolving. He simply doesn't put any passion into his role, when this kind of movie needs not necessarily a strong hero, but one who is strong in what he is feeling and believes in. It doesn't help that the screenplay doesn't quite make his character sympathetic enough; it's hard to feel sorry for John when not only does he have a nice house (with a satellite dish), but that his character can't think of a reason why he prefers to stick around in such a miserable place when instead he could soon be on a sunny beach with his girlfriend. This isn't the only place where the writing lacks proper thought and detail. The whole thing about John's relationship with his girlfriend and how she is planning to leave is barely touched upon, so much so that you have to wonder why they even bothered. She only seems to be in the movie so that the front of her shirt can be ripped open, letting the audience see her bra in every subsequent scene she appears in. There are also some big holes that even the most indiscriminating viewer will see, like how on earth has Bart managed to get away for so long with all the major crimes he keeps committing, including the murder of a number of cops?

If I had been sufficiently distracted by key elements in the movie, I might have considered such questions minor faults; after all, this is a low-budget biker epic that would never win awards, and is simply meant to entertain. I think we can all agree TIMERIDER 2 - He's back, and he's mad! And he's brought some friends with him...that the prime way a movie like this is supposed to entertain us is through its action sequences. And that's the main problem that Lone Hero has. Not that there aren't any action sequences, but that all the action sequences just don't deliver the goods. Like Flanery's performance, they lack passion, and mostly come across as people simply standing a few feet from each other and firing their guns. There's nothing very creative about any of these action sequences - you'll recognize every action sequence from some other movie, and I don't just mean the chase sequence that was ripped off from Cobra. We have the hero doing standard stuff like sneaking behind the villains and saying "Drop it!", and the caught villains slowly move their hands to the gun in their belt. The very low budget the movie obviously had certainly had some factor in why the action is so unelaborate, also explaining why machine-gun bullets seem to bounce off an old car and leave just tiny dents. Possibly it also explains why we almost never get to see any blood and bullet wounds during or after someone is shot, even when the corpse we're shown had a full machine-gun clip emptied into it seconds earlier. Whatever the causes may have been, they all make the action come across with the same effect of people slowly jogging through the wilderness. Pretty wilderness (the movie uses some nice British Columbia locations), but there's a reason why TSN does not showcase jogging.

The movie's lack of passion in areas where it really counts makes it hard for me to recommend Lone Hero. Yet at the same time I look back fondly on the many good things it contains, and I find it equally hard to dismiss the movie. Though I don't see the movie as something to actively seek out and rent, it just may fit the need when it pops up on cable during a day you've set out to be lazy, and there's no other exploitation on the other channels. At the very least, the movie does have a lot of good about it to suggest that genuinely good biker movies can be made. Let's hope next time they get someone who not only has a sense of fun, but a sense of excitement as well.

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See also: The Annihilators, The Peace Killers, Run, Angel, Run

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