As far as I can tell, Harley Davidson & The Marlboro Man is a cult classic with a cult of one: me. I don't know anybody else who's even seen this movie, let alone loves it like I do, and all the reviews I've read of it are dismissive bordering on abusive. Hell, even co-star Mickey Rourke disowned the movie, claiming that it made him feel like such a sellout that he retired from acting and spent the next few years in the boxing ring, getting his face pummeled until he looked like a Garbage Pail Kid. Me, I've watched this flick about 20 times since I first caught it on VHS in '91, and it remains an entertainingly baffling viewing experience to this day.
For no discernible reason, HD&TMM takes place in the near future: 1996. It stars two of the greatest examples of squandered potential the eighties had to offer: Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson. Mickey plays Harley Davidson, a kind of holy fool who likes to roll into town on the bike that bears his name, start a whole bunch of trouble, then roll back out again so he can spend the next two, three years philosophizing about God and the universe and shit. He wears an ugly leather motocross suit and a big diamond earring, and he can't shoot for shit. His buddy Marlboro is an ex-rodeo star who can shoot pool and pistols better than anyone alive, so he spends his time getting into barfights with gigantic Native Americans, balling this lady bike cop by the name of Virginia Slim, and duct-taping his ratty old cowboy boots back together.
Together, the two of them cruise back to their old stomping grounds in Burbank, CA, former home of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Harley's got some business to settle with a man-mountain named Jack Daniels, played by ex-WWF star Big John Studd. See, Harley banged Jack's wife (disgraced former Miss America Vanessa Williams) a few years back, so he's gotta let Jack pick him up by the balls and throw him through a few windows to earn Jack's forgiveness. But then there's a new problem: The bar where Harley, Marlboro, and Jack hang out with their pals Old Granddad, a deaf dude named Jose Cuervo, and this other cat (Giancarlo Esposito) who stole Jimi Hendrix's wardrobe and first name is about to get foreclosed unless they can come up with $2.5 million to renew the lease. Seems that ever since they went and put an international airport in Burbank there just ain't no room for decent, hard-working outlaws anymore, so Harley comes up with the idea to rob one of the armored cars belonging to the evil multinational bank that owns the deed.
They do the job alright, but then these blue-eyed yuppy douchebags (led by everyone's third favorite Baldwin, Daniel) show up wearing neck-to-ankle Kevlar-lined leather priest frocks and start blasting away with those fancypants Eurotrash machine guns that have the clips in the back instead of in the front. Our boys get away, but then they discover that the moneybags they stole actually contain a bunch of packages of a new designer narcotic called Crystal Dream, which looks like blue Sterno that's been vacuum-sealed like beef jerky. Turns out the bank pres (Tom Sizemore, playing a character who really ought to have been named Chase Manhattan) has been dealing drugs on the side, so he sends his hit squad out to murder everybody. Then there's a lot of male bonding, some shootouts where people need to get plugged in the head three or four times before they go down, and a pretty awesome helicopter vs. skyscraper climax that I'm pretty sure got jacked by the Wachowskis for The Matrix. Not to mention they totally ganked those priest coats for Reloaded. Maybe I'm not the only one in the cult after all.
What I like about this movie is that I really can't tell what they were going for with it. I suspect that at some point in its development history it was some kind of post-modern Warholian pop-art meta-movie satire using the flotsam and jetsam of our consumerist culture to create a Wild Bunch-style elegy to the 20th Century outlaw as he gets swept under the rug of history by the homogenizing influence of Corporate America. While there's still some irony in the idea that the only rugged individualists left in the world are named after mass-marketed products, I think that's about as far as the satire goes. This is just your standard urban Western/buddy movie, but with a whole shitload of weird touches, like the gunfight that takes place in the airplane graveyard or the fact that the bar has an airplane sticking out of its roof because, as it says in a newspaper headline glimpsed briefly on the wall, "PLANE CRASHES INTO PUB: Pilot Makes Happy Hour." I would actually like to read the original screenplay, because I have a feeling that the pseudo-futuristic world of this movie might have been fleshed out a lot more there than it was in the finished product. Or maybe it was always half-assed and that's just wishful thinking on my part. Either way, this feels like a movie that was based on a comic book or a fantasy novel or something, in that you feel like it's only scratching the surface of a much grander mythology.
If they'd really pushed this fucker into Buckaroo Bonzai levels of self-conscious cult nerdery, it would probably be better known, but as it stands, it's just a quirky action movie that starts with a bike-riding montage set to Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead Or Alive" and ends with Sonny Crocket riding a bucking bronco while dressed up like Roy Rogers. Along the way, there are many incidental pleasures to be had, most notably the breezy buddy banter between the two stars. Rourke and Johnson are two easy-going, naturalistic actors who pretty much bullshit their way through the whole movie on the strength of personal charm and iconic wardrobe choices. Marlboro's always dispensing down-home wisdom such as "Like my old man told me before he left this shitty world, 'Never chase buses or women—you'll always get left behind,'" while Harley is more prone to Zen fripperies like "It's better to be dead and cool than alive and uncool." I particularly enjoy the mid-shootout conversation the boys have about how the bullets for Harley's modified .454 Ruger cost $2.00 apiece, so that when he empties it at the bad guys and doesn't hit shit, he just wasted 12 bucks. "I nailed one and it cost about four and a quarter," Marlboro says as he rolls out of the way of machine gun fire. "Now here they come and they're spending a fortune." That's the kind of stuff I miss in modern action movies, where all anybody ever seems to say anymore is "C'mon!" and "Get down!"
Anyway, if you're looking for a blatant Butch & Sundance ripoff that uses corporate mascots to contrast the dusty highways of America's recent past with the gleaming office complexes of its immediate future, this is probably the only game in town. Also, you get to watch Don Johnson perform the single greatest trick pool shot ever captured on film. And there's this one part where Tom Sizemore speaks Japanese. Shit, what else do you need, man? Go watch this bitch and let's you and me and maybe the Wachowskis start the cult together.