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.