The Chicago Vandals in the late 1960s were motorcycle obsessives who did not fit anywhere else, so they formed a club where they could all belong. Joining it was to gain not just colours, but identity, protection and fellowship. The emergence of the phenomenon that gave rise to the Hells Angels was part of the seismic cultural rearrangements of the time and it turned rebels into antiheroes who rode as a group. Even a slow drive through town by a phalanx of Harley-Davidsons inspired awe and menace.

The film is a fictional take on what was really going on and is based on a 1968 book by photojournalist Danny Lyon, who spent four years interviewing and photographing the real Chicago Outlaws. His photographic essays captured the coolness of riding with brothers, and director Jeff Nichols (Mud) has been planning to turn it into a movie for almost 20 years.

It opens in the early days of the Vandals when the club, headed by Johnny (Tom Hardy), was built on the shared love of motorcycles and a simple code of loyalty and brotherhood. They joined because they hated living by society’s rules, then their own rules began.

Pulling this transitional moment of cultural history together is Kathy (Jodie Comer), a smart and kittenish woman who sees Benny (Austin Butler) in a bar one night and is, quite rightly, smitten. He drives her home then sits outside until her boyfriend leaves. She becomes the narrator who describes how it unfolded by way of answers to questions from Lyon’s character. Comer is one of the film’s three lynchpins and hers is a captivating performance, naïve but knowing, from a woman who lost her heart to a wild one and then tries to rein him in.

Johnny is older and wiser. He is a former truckie with a wife and a home who became their leader because he was known and respected. “Fists or knives?”, he asks early on after a challenge from a rival over whether to admit new members. They settle on fists because they don’t want to kill each other, then roll around in the mud and inflict superficial damage. Later, he asks the question again and the answer is different.

Hardy is at his best; he forgoes most of his maddening quirks and mannerisms and as Johnny offers leadership and protection. They are a motley crew and include Cockroach (Emory Cohen), Zipco (Michael Shannon) and Brucie played by South Australia’s Damon Herriman. It is a glorified life of booze, drugs and cigarettes interspersed with the odd brawl.

Then there is enigmatic Benny, the love of Kathy’s life. Austin Butler, who burst into cinema in Elvis, plays a character off to one side. He is the focus of the story but not the one telling it, and nor is he the Vandals leader. Butler’s James Dean looks make him a dream fit and he is a natural on a motorbike, having grown up around them and practised on old Harleys in Australia while making Elvis. His performance is quiet and unshowy as the natural born leader with a reckless streak who hears the call of the wild. This lone wolf asks nothing of others and expects them to do the same.

Meanwhile Johnny can sense the influx of younger members from out of town will change everything and wants Benny to take over as leader. And Jodie wants Benny to move to Florida.

It is an uber-cool chronicle of cultural change, directed by Nichols with an eye for authentic detail and filmed with a vintage patina that fits the late 1960s and early 1970s. New chapters form and as the members pour in, the ethos changes and the Vandals become a gang.

Yet for all its Easy Rider sex appeal, it remains surprisingly dry. This is a story being told and not one that pulls you in and lights up the screen. By the time the young ones wreck the show, there is not a lot to be missed.

The Bikeriders is in cinemas now

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