Timid about pushing the action pic envelope and uncertain of tone, “Biker Boyz” never really busts out of second gear. Though it would seem an ideal follow-up in the high-octane trend set by “The Fast and the Furious,” this account of competitive clubs of street-racing motorcyclists doesn’t approach that film’s seductive combination of kinetic excitement and the allure of pure danger. Two-wheeler fans are sure to make a pit-stop, but the only crowd likely to sustain pic in theaters past a few weeks are fans of the impressive roster of (mostly) young African American talent, topped by a solid Laurence Fishburne as the senior in the crowd.
Director Reggie Rock Bythewood’s taste for developing personal dramas, as evidenced in his HBO drama “Dancing in September,” asserts itself in scenes of off-track relationships, but the rather formulaic handling of these matters clashes with the desire to make a fast-paced, streets-themed sports movie. A looser, third kind of pic emerges in a few buddy scenes that suggests a more promising direction the project — fictionalized from a report by New Times writer Michael Gougis — might have taken.
First impression, though, is pure fun, a sort of “Warriors”-gone-Honda as a nighttime street race is anticipated between a young upstart and Smoke, the so-called “King of Cali” (Fishburne). The scene is as much a dance party as a race, but when Smoke’s Black Knights club arrives with military precision, it’s clear where the priorities are. Smoke’s trusted mechanic (an uncredited Eriq LaSalle) plays father to wannabe racer Kid (Derek Luke), who’s itching to race Smoke himself.
There’s a pleasingly theatrical feel to the opening sequence, both observing the many rituals of street racing (winner gets the helmet — this illegal sport’s equivalent of the Masters’ Green Jacket) and the lineup of additional actors strutting through: Orlando Jones as the Black Knights’ rhyme-spouting troubadour, Soul Train; Djimon Hounsou as chief of the Soul Brothers club, Motherland; Lisa Bonet as Queenie, a blowsy biker chick and Smoke’s eventual love interest; Larenz Tate as Wood, a cocky member of the Strays club; and Kid Rock cutting a strong profile as the Strays’ leader, Dogg.
When the race leads to a tragic end that sends Kid into a six-month mourning period away from the bikes, his mother Anita (Vanessa Bell Calloway, in pic’s best perf by a mile) hopes it will cool the young man’s urge for racing. But Kid drifts back to the scene, attracted by the good-looking tattoo artist Tina (Meagan Good), who’s Wood’s sister. His sudden intrusion into a race involving Stuntman (Brendan Fehr) shows Kid’s moxie and lack of good judgement — always essential ingredients in the racing-movie hero — but plays as contrived.
Still, this leads to some multiracial bonding between Kid, the Anglo Stuntman and Primo (Rick Gonzalez), a young Latino biker who proposes the trio form a club. Though the deliberate P.C. multiculturalism of this founding of the Biker Boyz is mannered, the relaxed handling of these guys’ scenes feels like the closest the movie ever gets to the reality of street culture. There’s a funny contrast to this looseness and Bythewood’s stark staging of the official sanctioning of the club by the bikers’ association, which appears to be taking place in some kind of lower-depths dungeon.
Significantly less dramatically engaging are the developing love affair between Kid and Tina, and Anita’s inevitable discovery that Kid is back racing again, leading her to drop the bomb on Smoke that he is Kid’s real father. This conflict finally gives Fishburne something to play with, but script’s handling of the revelations and the staging of other emotional explosions is straight out of B-mellers. Moreover, the pattern of son confronting and surpassing father is familiar, and “Biker Boyz” doesn’t advance the conceit.
What’s most surprising is how little Bythewood invests in making the races themselves truly gripping mini-movies, along the lines auds now expect. Camerawork, other than an occasionally sneaky, roving view from just above the asphalt level, never pulls off any dazzling or unprecedented angles and perspectives, but stunt coordinator Gary M. Hymes’ team is astonishing (with actors doing some actual riding).
Fishburne is his reliably commanding self. Luke displays a bit more friction and spark than he was permitted in the bland “Antwone Fisher,” but he’s stuck in a role saddled with too many B-pic conventions. Upstaging many better known thesps, Calloway takes over every scene she’s in, while Fehr best exudes the movie’s interest in young men’s drive to win. Though his appearances are kept to a minimum, rocker-turned-thesp Rock looks and sounds terrific. Others, such as Jones, Hounsou, Bonet and Tate are wasted in unfocused or marginal roles.
The physical challenges in the filming come through on screen, but lenser Gregory Gardiner delivers only moderately interesting visuals. What little sex is on view in this PG-13 vehicle is in Rita D. McGhee’s costumes. Camara Kambon’s score is pleasantly short on hip-hop and long on big guitar riffs.