THEY BLEW IT : Walt Becker’s ‘Wild Hogs’ [2/10]

On February 26th, North America's box office was led by Ghost Rider: a critically-lambasted movie about motorcycles, starring one of the leads from John Woo's Face/Off and featuring a cameo from Peter Fonda. Seven days later, it was toppled by Wild Hogs: a critically-lambasted movie about motorcycles, starring one of the leads from Face/Off, and featuring a cameo from Peter Fonda. The following weekend saw 300 crowned box-office champ despite receiving only a mild drubbing from the critics, and the fact that it involves neither motorcycles, John Woo alumni, nor Peter Fonda.

It doesn't actually take too much imagination to envisage the Easy Rider veteran in the role of 300's androgynously Mephistophelean villain King Xerxes – such casting might at least have yielded a giggle or two, which is more than can be said for the woeful misfire that is Wild Hogs. This is an alleged 'comedy' – boasting perhaps one decent gag over its entire length – in which four middle-aged 'born-again bikers' from Cincinatti head west in seach of adventure and excitement. As played by John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence and William H Macy, these 'weekend warriors' are each escaping domestic dissatisfaction and enjoying what may well be one last little rage against the dying of the light: a "trip to nowhere," in Travolta's ominous, all-too-accurate phrase.

Macy's geeky computer-programmer Dudley is the focus of most of the movie's physical comedy – very low-level slapstick and pratfalls – but at least he doesn't go in strenuously hammy pursuit of laughs like his three co-stars (each of whom have at least one scene of wildly embarrassing mugging). Dudley's fumbling romance with diner-owner Maggie (Marisa Tomei) also provides welcome contrast to and relief from the threadbare main plot, which sees the Hogs falling foul of a 'proper' biker gang, and eventually helping the residents of (real-life) nicey-nicey New Mexico town Madrid who are heartily fed up with the louts' boorish depredations.*

In earlier drafts of Brad Copeland's script this roughneck posse was reportedly identified as the Hell's Angels – but following a threatened lawsuit from the real Angels, the outfit became the fictional 'Del Fuegos': a snarling combo led by tattooed bad-ass Jack (Ray Liotta) (and only marginally more convincing than Black Pepper's band of nefarious nogoodniks from John S Rad's inimitable Dangerous Men.) The most surprising this about this legalistic tidbit isn't the fact that the Angels now prefer to settle their disputes in law-courts rather than on fore-courts, but that it reveals that what we're seeing isn't the first draft of Copeland's screenplay. This certainly isn't the impression given by the movie itself: a bunch of contrived situations and lame jokes that feels cobbled-together in considerable haste and executed with undue speed.

Director Becker's sole previous feature credit was 2002's Van Wilder – Party Liaison: not an earth-shattering debut by any means, but a minor guilty pleasure which yielded more its fair share of laugh-out-loud moments. To take a charitable view, Becker is perhaps much better suited to that kind of youth-oriented, raunchy gross-out. Here he never really seems in control of his material, and too often falls back on a horrible, rib-pokingly intrusive score by Teddy Castellucci (Adam Sandler's composer of choice.)

Just as he sometimes allowed Ryan Reynolds to unhelpfully veer into sub-Jim-Carrey caricature ('Carrey-cature'?) in Van Wilder, Becker shows little knack for handling performers in this more ambitious project. Macy, Liotta and Tomei – plus Stephen Tobolowsky (as the putupon Madrid sherriff) are sufficiently experienced and professional to look after themselves. Travolta and Allen don't fare anywhere near as well, while Christopher Guest regular Michael Hitchcock is wasted in what's little more than a walk-on, Scrubs favourite John C McGinley is stuck with a truly thankless role as a macho/camp highway-patrolman, and Tenacious D's Kyle Gass is truly toe-curling in his (mercifully) brief appearances as some kind of carnival karaoke singer.

Fatally, the ensemble all seem to be acting in different movies, each operating at a slightly different comic pitch – though much of the blame for this must go to first-time screenwriter Copeland. Macy's Dudley and Tomei's Maggie seem to have wandered in from a classy-indie in the Sideways mould, while it's somewhat disappointing to see Liotta as the kind of glowering, menacing heavy he essayed a full two decades ago in Something Wild. By playing things pretty much straight, Liotta doesn't come off too badly – until a jokey TV-pastiche sequence accompanying the end credits which seems cruelly calculated to humiliate both character and actor alike. Fonda is rather more fortunate, and somehow manages to make it out of the movie with his dignity more or less intact: cast in a showy deus ex Harley Davidson role, his contribution is short and pithy, and he never takes off his sunglasses. Let's hope he kept them on throughout the movie's premiere – and remembered to bring his earplugs…

Neil Young
6th/8th April, 2007

WILD HOGS : [2/10] : USA 2006 : Walt BECKER : 99 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Odeon cinema, MetroCentre, Gateshead (UK), 5th April 2007 – press show

* [spoiler] : This climaxes in a slugfest showdown between the Del Fuegos and the Wild Hogs, in which the latter prove – to their own bemusement and delight – to be rather more 'real' in terms of the 'biker code' than their down-and-dirty adversaries. The simulacrum thus trumps – and reveals the hollowness of - that which is being simulated: Jean Baudrillard, for one, would surely have approved!

click here for other films rated 1/10 or 2/10 : the dreaded Diorama of Dishonour!