The Sunday Film Review / Rourke Factor: Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man
Rourke Factor : Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man
Simon Wincer (1991)
When I started the (unfortunately titled) Rourke Factor gimmick and set out on a long (I didn’t quite realise how long at first, I’ll admit) quest to review every Mickey Rourke film ever made, there were two films I looked forward to reviewing (hand on heart they were the only two films I knew for certain Mr Rourke was in). One was The Wrestler, a universally acclaimed film featuring a prodigious Mickey Rourke performance. Two is today’s subject, a film I discovered while trying to google the price of importing Marlboro lights (yes I am enjoying life in the fast lane thank you for asking). Amused by the title I asked some of my more film orientated friends (who I definitely don’t have to pay to hang around with or anything) for their opinion. To the last they all reacted the same way; instant grimace followed by shrug then statement along the lines of ‘it’s awful but I kind of like it’.
‘It’s awful but I kind of like it’ is the very phrase that’s led to me experiencing The Room (last seen at the fantastic Five and Dime Picture Show viewing), Manos the Hand of Fate and Silent Night Bloody Night 2. I had high hopes Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man would be one of those awful films shamelessly crossing the line from genius to madness, a film that bravely disregards quality and focuses on being seen as fun at the expense of being terrible……………..
Harley Davidson (Mickey Rourke) is a man who rides a Harley Davidson…………yup it’s that sort of a script. To the accompaniment of what I’d term bland eighties wuss rock, Harley rides his Harley while wearing the latest in biker fashion; a dangly earring and orange biker jacket about as intimidating as a cave painting of a smiley face battling a lollipop. Despite his obvious deficiencies in choosing nicknames and avoiding wearing stereotypical clothing, Harley demonstrates physical prowess by stopping two of the world’s most inept robbers holding up a petrol station. He celebrates making petrol courts safer with a gratuitous montage of riding a Harley on different roads.
Eventually even Harley gets bored of endless aerial shots of him on a Harley so he helps move the plot along by seeking out an old friend named Marlboro Man (Don Johnson). Marlboro earned the name by surviving a bear attack using only a monopoly card for Marlboro station…… no I’m lying, it is of course because he always has a Marlboro cigarette in his mouth, there’s that script again. After a brief reunion where Harley fails to lift even a finger of help while Marlboro fights for his life, the two go to a bar………
Right this is where Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man got confusing and weird so bear with me: Before entering the bar Harley gives Marlboro a stolen gun. Marlboro say thank you by shooting his own bike, I either missed or there never was an explanation why. In the bar nobody’s happy to see Harley except the bar owner, an old man imaginatively named Old Man Jiles (Julius Harris given nothing interesting to do). Old Man Jiles tells Harley to leave but Harley refuses which somehow leads to a deaf Mexican dude (Eloy Casados) coming out of a secret wall. The deaf Mexican dude is inevitably named Jose Cuervo (after the tequila…………………… are you starting to appreciate what they did with the names yet?) Anyway, Jose also urges Harley to leave, but again Harley refuses and that somehow leads to a fight between Harley and a whisky drinking arm wrestler named Jack Daniels (former wrestler Big John Studd). Does anyone else get the feeling the writers either thought they were the cleverest cats on the planet or their hearts weren’t really in it?
Jack and Harley’s fight sees them falling out a second story window, which apparently was the excuse everyone was looking for to group hug and forget that Harley didn’t leave. Then Old Man Jiles and his son (I think) Jimmy Jiles (Giancarlo Esposito, who I didn’t recognise but fan boy freaked out to discover was Gus in breaking Bad!) reveal that the bar business is bad because of an airport graveyard next door (seems like you’d move once plans for an airplane graveyard next door were accepted). They also need 2 and a half million dollars for a six month lease otherwise the bar will become the property of ‘GENERIC EVIL CORP’.
In a heart wrenching scene Harley explains to the two Jiles that 2 and a half million dollars is an insane amount to pay for only another guaranteed six months of business, especially when that won’t solve the underlying fact that there’s an airplane graveyard where once there were punters house, and the only sensible course of action is to cut their losses and move on……………………… only kidding, he robs a bank truck. Well Harley, Marlboro and a crew of dudes named after drinks do, sadly they somehow manage to steal from the only security van belonging to drug dealing mobsters and end up with drugs rather than money. The Mobsters incidentally wear black cloaks, like to walk in a line and are apparently bullet proof except for some very brief moments when the script requires them not to be, it is the mobsters who save Harley from the ignominy of the worst dressed character award.
The rest of Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man concerns itself with the fallout from the robbery and for reasons I completely missed (if they were given), a weird sub plot involving Marlboro Man being the ‘other guy’ in a marriage between a cop and a woman named (shudders) Virginia Slim (Chelsea Field). Oh and at one point Tia Carrere of Wayne’s World fame holds a door open for someone.
Plot Summary ends.
I can see why some of my film orientated film friends (who exist) quite liked Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (hereby referred to as Har and Mar), it’s just I won’t be asking them their opinion on anything ever again. Don’t get me wrong, Har and Mar is certainly a film threatening to be fun, when it isn’t weighed down by its sense of self-importance, it’s just it never quite is. The vision was grandiose, a zany road movie in the style of Blues Brothers populated by quirky characters and nods at classic road movies and Westerns. The problem is whenever anything in Har and Mar nears grandiose status, the film panics, flail its arms wildly in the air then throws in an unnecessary shoot-out.
It’s a case of right intent, wrong execution and nowhere was this more nicely exemplified than in the script……….. Oh the script. The focus was there, the characters were given time for proper introductions and development……. Well the male ones anyway, the females got side lined which considering Har and Mar had two boob shots in the first six minutes wasn’t all that surprising, but then again how can women expect equality when they won’t apologise for Eve eating the apple or the Sex in the City films……… anyway, as I was saying, the character focus got half a tick so all Har and Mar needed to do for the other half was make sure it was populated by engaging characters……….ah.
Har and Mar does this thing where instead of thinking up a creative or natural way to introduce a character and tell you their name (freeze frame, name badge, meeting with doctor, pretty much any good film has a good example of this) it makes the school boy mistake of just having characters say one another’s name in every line of dialogue. At first it works fine,
‘How are you Harley?’
‘I’m fine Jack’
But then it goes on……..
‘That’s good to know Harley’
‘Thank you Jack’
‘You’re welcome Harley’
‘Want a drink Jack?’
‘Yes I would Harley’
Admittedly that example is passable, but imagine every conversation with every new character goes like that, actually don’t imagine, just watch the film, no actually don’t do that. At one point even the cloak wearing sometimes bullet proof mobsters sit in a helicopter talking to each other like that.
‘Fly the damn helicopter or you’re a dead man Tom’
‘Yes sir Ian’
Not only does the script come off as lazy and incredibly stupid, it completely misses the opportunity to show the different statuses characters hold in relation to one another. At first I thought maybe this weird jarring dialogue was just the school boy error of a script writer either inexperienced or more bothered about action sequences than strong characters (though I maintain the two hand in hand is the way forward), but the pacing and time spent on characters led me to a different conclusion. I think it’s a script trying to show off, I reckon Simon Wincer (he wrote the screenplay as well as directing) thought that naming every character after a brand of drinks or cigarettes was cool. There’s this big disclaimer at the beginning where the film emphasises no brands paid for product placement, which is the miss of the century considering how strong the promotion of brands is, and I think Har and Mar genuinely saw itself as this important socially relevant piece then became obsessed with making sure the audience knew it. I imagine a conversation something akin to this occurred………
‘How do we show the audience how big and clever our film is?’
‘Well, one of the cleverest and most daring things we do is have most of the characters named after brands that damage your health, we could emphasise that’
‘Yes but how?’
‘What if we keep having characters say each other’s names at the end of every sentence’
‘fucking sold! Shall see if any of the brands that damage health would be willing to pay for the free advertising they’re getting’
‘No, I have a crippling fear of success and money’
Getting past the names debacle, the rest of the script is really piss poor. There’s this constant theme about Harley being free because he can ride around on a Harley but we never actually see him being free. In fact he spends about a third of the film in hiding after the occasionally bullet proof cloak adorned bad guys get one over on him and another third being asked to leave by everyone. In fact Harley isn’t respected by most of the important characters which makes dialogue telling us what a free spirited wonder-kid to aspire to be he is absolutely redundant. Don’t tell me someone’s a ‘free spirit’, show me.
I want to stress the script was an absolute deal breaker for me, the film became really boring really quickly. It’s littered with clichés and characters not given enough to do to be considered anything other than one dimensional stereotypes. Listen a film aiming to be great and not achieving it is one often very forgivable thing, but Har and Mar so utterly missed the mark its like if NASA missed the Moon landing (remember when they did that? No me neither) and accidently planted a lunar rover on Pluto. There’s an overreliance on shoot outs so ridiculous even Tony Scott would’ve been ashamed and incredibly poor female characterisation (I’m pretty sure Har and Mar wouldn’t pass even one of the criteria for The Bechdel Test). Buttttttttttttttttttttttttttt, for all that I have to admit there were some positives. At times the script forgot it was trying to be a profound piece of cinema and got on with having fun; a scene involving Harley accidently shooting Marlboro Man had a nice build and genuinely made me laugh, while the bad guys in their cloaks, probably for all the wrong reasons, are worth the price of rental alone, actually no, don’t rent the film. Now I think about, it the support characters, despite constantly having to say each others names and being given some shallow dialogue, are really well acted. Big John Studd had a strange semi-irish accent going on, but everyone played their part nicely. There was also a fine cameo by Tom Sizemore (similar to another great cameo in Enemy of the State) as the big bad guy definitely worth mentioning.
And seguing from that into the section of Rourke Factor where I judge Mr Rourke’s performance, the thing I most enjoyed about Har and Mar was Mr Rourke himself. Rourke overcame a poor script, dodgy action scenes and insanely poor choice of character name to deliver a strong, level headed performance. It probably helped that Don Johnson made a pretty decent Marlboro Man, allowing for some much needed improvisation (I’m 99 percent positive it was improv) from Rourke. I was reminded in a very good way of Rourke’s accomplished performance in Angel Heart. He looked in good nick too, Har and Mar was before boxing and bad surgery morphed his face so he made for a handsome, clean cut Harley who rides a Harley.
There’s effort and energy from Rourke here and when he’s like that he’s a pleasure to watch, butttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt pleasurable as watching Rourke may have been (incidentally I want to be clear my lustful feelings for Rourke are strictly plutonic……………………… unless he wants to) it was nowhere near enough to save Har and Mar. It’s a boring film, my film friends may have enjoyed it, but for long long stretches I just found it boring, inane in a none deliberate way and far far too sure of itself. I didn’t enjoy it and don’t recommend it………………….. unless you want to see a good Mickey Rourke performance, but trust me, there are a lot easier films to watch that deliver that.
Written By Sam ‘He Rockets through the sky, a hero for all time’ McKinstrie
Unnecessarily on twitter as McKinstHFP
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