"We blew it."
Overly-ambitious, woefully under-developed--and right from the start quite unnecessary--prequel/sequel to the legendary biker flick. Horizon Movies has released Easy Rider: The Ride Back, the 2003...or maybe 2007...or maybe 2009...or maybe 2013 straight-to-DVD drama directed by Dustin Rikert and starring Chris Engen, Sheree J. Wilson, Jeff Fahey, Newell Alexander, Michelle Borth, Rance Howard, Lauralee Bell, Michael Nouri, and one Phil Pitzer, the Cincinnati lawyer (and sorta Peter Fonda lookalike) who wrangled away the sequel rights to the original Easy Rider and spent a boatload of his own money and time making this ersatz opus. I don't have a problem with upstart sequels or prequels to classic movies, particularly when we're talking about Easy Rider, one of the most profitable examples of "upstart" filmmaking that Hollywood ever saw. What I don't like are indies that are either inept or cliched or that promise so much more than they can deliver...or, indeed, all of the above. Lots of bonus material, including a commentary track from Pitzer and Wilson, for this nice widescreen transfer.
Morgan Williams (Phil Pitzer), a 60-something hippie fugitive who burned his Vietnam draft card and scurried over the American southern border, now lives in relative splendor in Mexico, making bad jewelry and selling pot. His sister, Shane (Sheree J. Wilson), has dropped in to tell Morgan their ailing, aging, ornery father, Old Hickcock 'Wild Bill' Williams (Newell Alexander), now living with her against his will, hasn't much more time on this earth, and that Morgan has to settle their decades-long estrangement before "Wild Bill" dies. Morgan eventually agrees, dons his deceased brother's Stars and Stripes-adorned leather jacket, fires up his dead bro's "Captain America" panhead Harley, and heads north for the U.S. of A.. You see...Morgan is the younger brother of 60s drug dealer/biker/rebel Wyatt Williams, who along with Wyatt's friend, "Billy the Kid," was gunned down by some "colorful locals" outside of New Orleans back in 1969 (Morgan was able to rescue Wyatt's jacket and rebuild his bike). Hooking up with old friend--and Shane's first love--Wes Coast (Jeff Fahey) for the ride back, Morgan shares with Wes the backstory of his family's estrangement, including his father's WWII PTSD, his brother Virgil's (Chris Engen) evolution from clean-cut 50s teen jock to Vietnam Special Ops killer, and Morgan's own battle with his father over dodging the draft.
When low-budget indies are discussed and criticized, one of the most frequent and idiotic gripes I often read (or receive) from some moviegoers is that reviewers should cut these efforts some slack because, despite the low budgets and iffy cast and crew skills, they have "heart." These are labors of love, these viewers bleat, so if the direction is shoddy or the acting blows or the editing is wonky, that doesn't matter because the filmmakers tried. Well..."trying" as a measure of actual achievement, is bullsh*t (it's just that kind of thinking that tragically dominates now, and that has put this once great country, frankly, in the toilet). You don't "try" anything in life or art: you either "do" or you "don't." And money has nothing to do with it. So I give Phil Pitzer credit for the gumption and chutzpah and balls to wrest an "official" sequel out of Easy Rider, when even original stars Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper failed to do so. It doesn't bother my sense of aesthetic purity at all to see someone "outside of the loop" come up with a sequel to such an iconic title; trust me, everybody and their brother has been trying to squeeze some more coin out of that little biker movie gold mine since it first came out 40+ years ago. Hollywood is about making money, first and last, regardless of any moviemaker's line of b.s. about "art" or "vision" or "passion." One of Easy Rider's central messages is that Peter Fonda's character realizes too late that he and Billy "blew it" by dropping out via a big score of cash, when such riches are just as limiting (and empty) to their freedom as the rules of society they flaunt. That hippie message in Easy Rider helped make Fonda and Hopper millionaires, revitalizing their moribund Hollywood careers, while providing readily accessible touchstones for their resumes that continued to keep them employed for decades past their expected sell-by dates. So if a lawyer like Phil Pitzer wants to come along and squeeze a little gravy off those guys' meal ticket, so be it, and save your phony aesthetic outrage over a classic somehow being "desecrated" in the process.
Now, that being said...if Pitzer's movie is sh*tty, he isn't deserving of a dime's worth of credit, regardless of the level of his stated "passion." I checked out some articles on-line concerning Pitzer's almost decade-long quest to make this movie, and it's a pretty convoluted, checkered story. From what I can make out, Pitzer, a retired (and apparently rich) Cincinnati lawyer, bought the sequel rights to Easy Rider with several other investors around 2003, when the then-current rights' holder was sued for failing to proceed with a proposed sequel. Pitzer and his group then planned on including deleted scenes from the original movie to pad out their own sequel, which sparked a law suit from original Easy Rider producer Bert Schneider, who claimed Pitzer didn't legally own the sequel rights. A complicated law suit followed, which Pitzer and his investment group eventually won, and filming began in 2007 in of all places, Springfield, Ohio. Various news articles over the years would have Pitzer claiming the movie was ready for release...only to have the date come and go with no movie in sight. Now, one would assume the movie that's on this disc is the final version of Pitzer and company's "vision;" whether or not it has or will play in a legitimate theater is another matter.
Which brings us to Easy Rider: The Ride Back proper. And my first and last question is: this is a biker movie? Forget for a moment the elemental stupidity of providing an unasked-for backstory for Fonda's character and his unseen family (did you watch Easy Rider for the first time and go, "Gee...I wonder what Captain America's brother is like..."?). The original Easy Rider may indeed have been "art" (whatever the hell that means), but it was also a kick-ass biker flick, so if you're going to try to ape it in a sequel, why would you do so in this wimpy-assed way? If you've read any of my reviews of 60s and 70s biker flicks, then you know I like them mean, dirty, and stupid. Easy Rider: The Ride Back, on the other hand, is soft and feminine, an Oprah show version of a biker movie where primal, existential musings born out of the Mother Road are here transformed into politicized superficial signposting--"Hey, let's briefly mention 9/11! And the homeless! And the Iraq War! And the plight of emotionally scarred veterans! And the environmental disaster of the Salton Sea!" If you tell me a biker film is more than endless shots of hogs out on the desert asphalt, and orgies filled with screaming, drunken bikers, and good ol' fashioned hippie ass-stompings, and various assorted naked women, well then...good for you. But not for me. You can keep your Disney-fied pussy Wild Hogs sh*t. About the last thing I need a sequel to Easy Rider to be, is "feel good, self-help book affirmative" (jesus christ...they even manage to drag in postpartum depression here: "Mr. Fonda, Mr. Hopper, Mr. Nicholson--your maxi-pads are ready!") Easy Rider: The Ride Back's few derivative road shots, its lame 2-punch bar fight (oh it's a doozy!), and its one or two naked breasts, don't begin to cover all the talk that's endlessly yakked up here.
And what talk it is. No, that's actually a question, dear reader, because at least half this goddamned movie's soundtrack is garbled to utter distraction, particularly anytime frankly disquieting Pitzer swallows the ends of his lines. Once you figure out what's going on, and what the movie's message is (basically: cheap sentiment), and what its purpose is (basically: glomming onto the original's iconography and cash), it's hard not to laugh at Easy Rider: The Ride Back's various missteps and ineptitudes. Scripted by director Dustin Rikert (indie fare like Ghost Rock, Haunted Airplane, and The Gundown) and Pitzer, Easy Rider: The Ride Back makes the big mistake of trying to be too much with too little: not too little money (it looks okay, actually), but too little scripting ability. If you want to make a prequel to Easy Rider, fine, do that. Or a sequel, okay. But don't try and do both if you don't have the screenwriting facility to intertwine the endless flashbacks that blankly pop here, into something more cohesive and meaningful. As Easy Rider: The Ride Back unfolds, you find you're not watching carefully thought-out, structured drama...but animated note cards, with big, block-lettered "important themes" haphazardly checked-off with no more import than a very long, extended movie trailer. Of course, the last line of defense for this sort of sophomoric trickery is to blankly exclaim (as Pitzer and Wilson do in so many words on the commentary track), "Well...it's about something important! It's about family, and the troops, and racism, and other things! So it's important because the topics are important!" Well...sure those topics are important...but superficially ticking them off one by one like a grocery list--done here with about the same level of dramatization you'd find in, "A dozen eggs. Milk. Toilet paper"--doesn't in itself constitute well-done, or "important," drama.
As centrally damning as all that is to Easy Rider: The Ride Back, the movie's case isn't exactly helped by the presence of Phil Pitzer, either. Look, Sheree J. Wilson, an accomplished actress (she used to bring real juice to Dallas), is just fine as Shane, despite the rather routine, familiar nature of her part and dialogue. Jeff Fahey, another solid performer, is less fortune here, but it's hard to blame him, considering the idiotic dialogue he's forced to utter (when he finally meets Wilson and waggles his eyes, saying, "You look pretty good, baby," I hit the floor). An unrecognizable Michael Nouri is appropriately noxious in one or two brief scenes, while Rance Howard pretty much walks off with the movie by merely underplaying against Newell Alexander's too-broad turn. All of that hit-and-miss performing you expect in a low-budget outing; Pitzer, however, is a whole different matter. Had first-time actor Pitzer been merely hired for this job, you could simply chalk up his unintentionally amusing parody of Fonda to bad acting. However, the difference between a jobbing actor blowing a role and a novice with a wad of cash giving himself the lead role in his own self-financed movie, is altogether two different things: one's a poor actor, and the other is a wannabe starring in his own vanity project. Creepily channeling Fonda as seen through the looking glass, with this rather fascinating reverse pageboy bob that reminds one not at all of "Captain America" but rather Diane Baker in Hitchcock's Marnie, Pitzer's constipated efforts to look and sound bad-ass ("I hate f*cking surprises," he mutters to inadvertently hilarious results) while he preens in front of the camera, is flat-out absurd (on the commentary track, when Wilson giggles about 60-something Pitzer passing a kidney stone for god's sake when he rode one of the bikes in a scene, the silence from Pitzer is thunderous). Whatever you want to say about Peter Fonda as a straight actor (and there's not much you can say...), you can't deny how perfectly he fit into Easy Rider's whole pulsating, organic vibe. And that's precisely the problem with Pitzer's performance, and with Easy Rider: The Ride Back, as well: they're both inorganic from conception to execution. They're false.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.