Ladies and gentlemen, my DVD collection has a new crown jewel. It used to be my Australian copy of Death Wish 2, which, unlike the Region 1 release, is widescreen and doesn't have the pubes fuzzed out during the nasty parts. Yeah, Aussie Death Wish 2 had a good run at the top, but now there's a new sheriff in town, and his name is Rad.
I don't have to tell you that Rad is a stone-cold classic, but due to its anti-corporate message, its official DVD release has been suppressed, if not by the Man, then by someone in his employ. But for every injustice there is a hero, and that hero's name is RAD-ON-DVD, the Amazon vendor who's selling a gorgeous anamorphic hi-def transfer of this seminal slice of Americana. They say you can't put a price on freedom, but I say you can: $11.99, plus $2.98 shipping and handling.
The deal is, Rad is the BMX version of every movie ever made. It's about this poor local boy named Cru who's only good at one thing: riding his bike long past the age when he really oughtta have a car, or at least a friend with a car. So when this big corporation comes to town and offers a hundred grand to the rider who can win the monster mamma-jamma race known as Helltrack, it's Cru's chance to prove himself. But will he be able to overcome the corrupt system that wants to keep the little guy down? The eight or nine glorious power ballads on the soundtrack sure seem to think so.
Telling the story of Rad is sort of like telling the story of Jesus. Everybody knows it, it's been passed down through the generations, so what's the point? What understanding can I bring to this timeless tale that hasn't already been done to death by countless scholars, philosophers, and poets? Well, just like Mel Gibson proved with that scene in The Passion of the Christ where Jesus invents the table, you can always bring a new angle to an old story. We always knew that Jesus died for our sins, made wine out of water, took a beating like a man, all that shit. But did you know that he also revolutionized the way people eat dinner? No, of course you didn't. Only Mel Gibson knew that. And that's the job of the artist: To make old shit new again.
With that in mind, I would like to call attention to an overlooked facet of Rad lore: the skull scene. See, about halfway through Rad's perfectly paced 91-minute running time, Cru has hit a bit of a snag. He's managed to qualify for Helltrack, but the lisping fat-cat organizer is afraid that Cru's natural talent might upstage Bart Taylor, the Aryan prettyboy he's got in his pocket. So just like every other filthy capitalist pig who gets beaten fair and square on a level playing field, he changes the rules of the game to state that only riders with sponsors can compete. Cru doesn't have a sponsor ("I ride for me," he declares in a spine-tingling display of Nietzschean self-reliance) so what does he do? Does he go home and cry about it? Hell no. (He does that later.) He says fuck it, I'm gonna be my own goddamn sponsor. So he starts his own company, Rad Racing, and gets all of his friends and classmates to come together to print up some T-shirts with his awesome logo on them.
Here's where the skull scene happens. All the 28-year-old teenagers have gathered in the high school Home Ec room to volunteer for T-shirt duty, and one of them walks up to Cru's new girlfriend (played brilliantly by future Full House star Lori Loughlin and her shoulder pads), puts a human skull on her desk, and says "Thank you." This character is never seen again. This puzzling scene raises a lot of questions. What does the skull symbolize? Who is this character? And perhaps most baffling of all, what is he thanking her for?
Obviously, stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham is not going to give you any straight answers. After all, the success of any great work of art lies in its ambiguity. But I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb when I say that the skull scene is a reference to another classic drama, William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Oft considered the best work of Western literature by those who haven't seen Rad, Hamlet features a scene in which Hamlet, prince of Denmark, has come upon the exhumed corpse of his old friend and court jester Yorrick. Hamlet holds the deceased comedian's skull aloft and laments the impermanent nature of human accomplishment. Yorrick spent his time on earth making people laugh, but now all of his merrymaking has been forgotten, and all that he was has been reduced to a crumbling pile of bones. Is this what Needham is saying all of Cru's efforts will amount to? Even if he manages to win Helltrack and astound the multitudes with his bicycling acumen, he, like all of us, will eventually die, and his two-wheeled deeds, no matter how gravity-defying, will be scattered like so much dust in the ever-swirling winds of time.
Dude, what a fucking bummer.
But as anyone who saw Smokey and the Bandit can attest, Needham is not a filmmaker content to parrot the ideas of others. His work is too textured for that. I believe that the skull scene in Rad is not a mere appropriation of Hamlet's morbid fatalism, but a refutation of it. My proof for this theory lies in the mysterious skull-bearer's cryptic display of gratitude. I believe that by leaving the skull behind and thanking Lori Laughlin (an Ophelia substitute due to her association with water throughout the film), he is acting as a Hamlet surrogate and abandoning Shakespeare's nihilism in favor of the can-do spirit represented by Cru and his team of supporters. This scene, even more so than the infamous "bicycle boogie" set-piece, is the heart and soul of Rad. I believe that Needham is saying that while we may all be destined for the grave, our actions, if they are pure of intent and unswerving in execution, will live on forever in the memories of those they inspired. Not only is this scene joyous and life-affirming on an emotional level, it also places Rad firmly in the context of literary history.
Or maybe they just had a skull lying around on set that day.
Though the mystery of the skull scene will continue to arouse debate long after we've all met our respective dates with destiny, there's no mystery about Rad's many other awesome moments. Its opening credits sequence alone is worth the price of admission. Two BMX riders perform balletic freestyle maneuvers worthy of Cirque de Soleil, and they do it sporting mullets so severely delineated that they resemble coonskin caps. Then we cut to a single line of dialogue ("Let's rock this sucker.") before we see Cru BMX his way through his morning paper route, thus characterizing him as a resourceful free-thinker with strong ties to the community. Then there's a dialogue scene, and then Cru has to race a mustached motorcycle cop through a lumber yard. Then there's another dialogue scene where Cru's mom Adrian Balboa says he can't pursue his dreams because he needs to take the SATs, which, like Haley's Comet, only come around once in a century, so if he misses them, it'll be a lifetime of demeaning manual labor for him.
Then the professional bike riders come to town. The evil ones are top-ranked Bart Taylor and his twin henchmen, Xamot and Tomax, who like to dress up in Buck Rogers disco outfits and perform creepy threesome-inspired dirty dancing routines with their shared groupie. But then Cru catches the eye of the world's only female BMXer, and they go out on the dancefloor on their bikes to perform the sexiest goddamn mating ritual you've ever seen. While Real Life's synth ballad "Send Me An Angel" plays and the crowd claps along, they sublimate their mutual lust into their bicycles, sensually pumping their pedals and manipulating their machines into all the positions they long to twist each other into. It is a moving and invigorating display of eroticism that has yet to be equaled in American cinema.
Then there's another dialogue scene, then it's back on the bikes so Cru can learn how to do backflips. Then there's some more dialogue. Then he qualifies for Helltrack by taking all these shortcuts that all of the corporate-sponsored riders are too institutionalized to notice. Little more than trained monkeys plastered with advertisements, they are powerless against an independent thinker like Cru.
Then there's some more dialogue, and Cru goes bike-frolicking in the fields with his girl. Then there's some more dialogue where the evil businessmen try to disqualify Cru from the competition. Luckily, the whole goddamn town knows who Cru is from his paper route, so they raise the money to get him back in business. This scene is an uplifting celebration of local activism as the seemingly disenfranchised townsfolk pool their resources to anoint Cru their avatar who in their stead will slay the mighty dragon known as Big Business.
Then it's time for Helltrack, a four-lap gauntlet of athletic prowess and shameless product placement. Cru's intuitive riding style lets him take an early lead, but he is soon torpedoed by Xamot (or maybe it was Tomax) so that Bart Taylor can win the race and protect their team's precious endorsement deals. But Bart proves himself to be more than a capitalist running dog when he takes his own teammates out of the race so that he can face Cru fair and square. It's clear that Bart has never faced such a worthy adversary, and he finds the taste of competition far more enticing than the color of money. Cru emerges victorious, costing Bart his sponsorship, but that's okay because he always has a place on the Rad Racing team. Bart's conversion from corporate lackey to revolutionary is Cru's ultimate triumph, for even though he races only for himself, his true legacy will be represented by all those his feats have inspired.
To be rad, or not to be rad? That is the question. And I think we all know the answer.