Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be; sometimes it’s actually better. I saw Simon Wincer’s retro-action thriller Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man back in 1991, and my professional assessment at the time was that it was a fresh, steaming turd on the sidewalk. Set in the far future of 1996, this is a weird sci-fi buddy movie that features two big stars on their uppers and looking for a commercial hit, but the film was a critical and commercial disaster. You’d need to ask the algorithm in charge exactly why Amazon Prime have chosen to exhume this film for HD streaming treatment in 2023, but a nagging feeling suggested that maybe HD&tMM might be worth another look, and indeed, so it proved…
Wincer’s film opens with a disclaimer that neither motorcycle or cigarette companies were involved in the creation of this movie, which seems odd because it’s a great advert for two equally deadly past-times, motorcycles and industrial-grade chain-smoking. We kick off with tough-guy cowboy Harley Davidson, (Mickey Rourke), established as a truly incendiary hard-man as we see him riding his bike about to Bon Jovi’s reactionary anthem Wanted Dead or Alive. In a modernisation of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, HD teams up with the Marlboro Man, played by Don Johnson in a beard and cowboy hat combo.
There’s a posse after these two outlaws from society, and it’s not quite the usual one; Daniel Baldwin leads a team of gunmen in ankle-length bulletproof trench-coats in pursuit. This is 1996, after all, but the future in a post-ozone layer world is barely discernable; everything looks exactly the same other than there’s more air travel. Graveyards of abandoned derelict planes are everywhere, and even Burbank has its own international airport. What this means about life tomorrow is hard to understand; there’s an advert for Die Hard V; Die Hardest just to add a vague layer of cultural satire. There’s also a drug called ‘crystal dream’ going down that makes everyone believe in lies. ‘On the street, it’s called the dream’ we’re told, but Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man are no dreamers, they’re clear-sighted pragmatists, and the rest of the world is blurry and out of step.
‘Better to be dead and cool than alive and uncool,’ is the moral here, but Rouke and Johnson shed whatever cool they had with this silly, macho film which was originally a vehicle for Bruce Willis, who wisely thought better. But what is striking is how closely this follows the story beats that later resurfaced in The Matrix. After a battle with the black trench-coated gunmen, our heroes take the fray back to the towering office-block of the sinister company that controls the goons, with a lobby/office gunfight including a helicopter blitzing the 40th floor with automatic machine gun fire.
Rourke regretted making this film, surprising given the plethora of utter duds that he was involved with, claiming that making it sent him into a decade of self-loathing, self-destruction and depression. Viewing this back in 1991 had pretty much the same effect on me, but seen from 2023, it’s a lightweight, derivative star vehicle that benefits from two personable leads doing their mega-star thing. Leaving aside the commercial side, rote films like this betray the age-old problem of all creative industries; execs trying to defend their jobs with too much betting on what worked the year before, and not enough taking actual risks. HD&tMM somehow hit on a crucial formula for sci-fi but never even knew it; sometimes we’re too busy looking backwards to see what’s right in front of us.