Though best known as the stocking-capped member of the Monkees, Michael Nesmith also enjoyed a brief side-career as a film producer during the 1980’s. Repo Man is probably the best known of his credits in this area but Timerider was the trail-blazer amongst his productions, the first one to actually make it into movie theaters. This breezy blend of sci-fi, western and adventure flick became something of a cult favorite with b-movie fans on home video back in its day. It remains a diverting little relic from the last great era when indie genre efforts like this could actually make it to the multiplex.
Timerider is subtitled “The Adventure Of Lyle Swann” — said adventurer is played by Fred Ward in an early leading role. He’s a tech-savvy motorcycle enthusiast who is speeding his way through a Baja race when he takes a wrong turn and ends up in the middle of a time-travel experiment. He is accidently zapped back into the late 1870’s and immediately finds himself in trouble: sleazy outlaw Porter Reece (Peter Coyote) gets one look at Lyle’s “machine” and decides he has to have it.
Before the adventure ends, Lyle finds love with outlaw woman Claire Cygne (Belinda Bauer), gets involved in shootouts, fisticuffs and some unlikely but visually arresting horse-vs.-cycle chases. It all builds up to a big showdown and chase that also incorporates a phony man of the cloth (Ed Lauter) and a vengeful Texas Ranger (L.Q. Jones). There’s also a final time-traveling twist that is poetic and paradoxical all at once.
Despite the high-concept premise, Timerider is a surprisingly low-key affair. It’s more interested in its characterizations and the complexity of communication between people from different eras rather than spectacle or elaborate action setpieces. That said, director William Dear’s old-fashioned sense of quirkiness works surprisingly well. The first act has a few rough edges in how it sets things up but the story flows smoothly once Lyle is in the old west — and there’s enough charm to the pulpy blend of sci-fi and western tropes to keep it going, especially in the oft-unusual characterizations.
Timerider also benefits from an intelligent use of its small-scale resources. Dear keeps the scale of the film at a manageable size and makes excellent use of picturesque New Mexico locations. The sharp cinematography by Larry Pizer gives things a professional sheen and the synth-rock soundtrack blends new wave and country-rock motifs in a catchy way (Nesmith contributed here, alongside ex-Dylan sideman David Mansfield).
However, the film’s best resource is a cast packed with familiar faces, all of whom seem to be enjoying this genre-bender for the lark it is. The underrated Ward makes a charming hero, physical enough to handle the action but also possessed of a droll, deadpan sense of comic timing. Coyote, Masur and Walter play their outlaw archetypes in a broad way that fits the material: Coyote usually plays more serious roles and shows a contagious joy in the way he cuts loose here. Elsewhere, Lauter and Jones deliver reliably sturdy work in their roles and Bauer smolders as the sexy but tough love interest (why didn’t she have a bigger career?).
In short, Timerider is a modest but charming little sleeper. If you’ve got a fondness for the early 1980’s — both its films and its sense of style — it will definitely hit that sweet spot for you.