When Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man hit the multiplexes in 1990, it felt like a strange mutt chasing after a familiar genre. The action comedy was well established by this point and this curious entry futzed with the formula by throwing in a bit of the western and some oddball gestures towards cyberpunk futurism. Predictably, the critics slashed it up and quietly drifted into home video and cable t.v. obscurity. Looked at through a modern viewpoint, the film is an interesting curiosity. It’s not great as an action flick or a comedy but is weird enough to be compelling in its own underachiever sort of way.
The film takes place in a 1996 where commerce is edging out the little guy and the drug trade is dominated by a designer drug called “Crystal Dream.” Eternal drifter Harley (Mickey Rourke) leaves a small town in Texas to join up with his occasional running partner, Marlboro Man (Don Johnson), for some outlaw adventures. When they discover their favorite bar is about to lose its lease, they decide to rob a bank truck for the funds to save it. Unfortunately, they end up with a load of Crystal Dream that belongs to the bank’s main executive/secret drug dealer, Chance (Tom Sizemore). An attempt at a trade with the bank men leads to tragedy, forcing the two oddball heroes into a two-fisted, two-gun revenge.
Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man never quite capitalizes on its eclectic array of elements: Don Michael Paul’s script seems like an extended McGuffin designed to facilitate action sequences, characterizations never move beyond gestures towards familiar archetypes and the intriguing possibilities of its near-future setting go totally unexplored. Despite a steady stream of punchups and shootouts, the plot never builds tension and the action doesn’t build to a crescendo. As a result, the film just kind of lopes around amiably – and occasionally explosively – for just under 100 minutes.
However, that doesn’t make Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man unwatchable. In fact, it’s modestly amusing despite its flaws. A big part of this lies in its well-chosen cast. Johnson and Rourke fit their roles perfectly: Johnson gets to lean on his southern charm and comic skills while Rourke was born to play this kind of half-badass/half-space cadet character. Sizemore is also worthy of note in an early role, bringing tension and a quirky sensibility to a sketchily-rendered villain role. The backing cast is also full of familiar faces that b-movie fans will appreciate: Julius Harris, Giancarlo Esposito, Robert Ginty, Daniel Baldwin and Tia Carrere all pop up here.
That said, the element of Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man that keeps it involving is the steady direction from Simon Wincer, who was fresh off helming Lonesome Dove for television when he made this. He delivers a string of well-calibrated action sequences and gives the film an impressive visual gloss, exploiting many unique settings with the help of ace cinematographer David Eggby (a few scenes in an airplane graveyard are particularly striking). Most importantly, Wincer allows the goofball aspect of the storyline speak for itself, letting the actors handle the humor and propping up their work with a kind of comic book flair. His treatment almost makes the story’s weird melange of action, comedy and sci-fi almost seem normal – and that lends it a subtly hypnotic quality.
In short, Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man is the kind of underachieving but undemanding fare that fits the bill for late night cable or a lazy afternoon screening. Its mixture of the familiar with a slight dash of the odd makes it perfect viewing when your brain is in a low gear.
Blu-Ray Notes: Shout! Factory recently released a blu-ray of this title. Image quality is solid on the transfer, particularly in the representation of the sun-baked color scheme. The 2.0 stereo soundtrack is presented in lossless form and offers a balanced blend of its elements. A few brief of extras are included. The first is a punchy, fast-paced theatrical trailer than leans heavily on the film’s comedic side. The other is a vintage EPK: it’s more fun than usual for these things because screenwriter Don Michael Paul hosts the segment with irrepressible enthusiasm for his own work.