Is it possible to get a second-degree sunburn looking at people with tight, pickled skin? I get this way watching "The Hills" and "Growing Up Gotti" on TV. But "Hell Ride" is something else altogether. It's a self-amused, self-conscious, seriously limp throwback to motorcycle westerns of the 1970s, set on the arid highways of the American Southwest. The writer and director, Larry Bishop, pulls in close on the actors' skin to an alarming degree. You can see the variegated patches that overexposure can cause.
These don't look like spray-on tans. They look accidental, like the cast got wasted one night and woke up in the desert. The movie has a kind of authenticity that way. Everybody seems hung over and one scene away from fatal sunstroke. No one gets more close-ups than Bishop himself. (OK, an assortment of ladies' bobbling breasts and buttocks do.) He plays - well, I'm not sure what he's playing. A dude on a bike? But he looks rightly filthy and seems too old for this movie. The primary interests of his character, Pistolero, consist of beautiful, bodacious women and the would-be lascivious things they can say to him.
Bishop is the son of Joey Bishop, the Rat Pack's comic relief, but when forced to look into his large dark eyes, stare at his impossibly black hair, and hear his gruff voice utter gratuitous profanity, you think about a counterfeit version of the Ian McShane of "Deadwood."
This movie is his second as a director, after "Mad Dog Time," his Richard Dreyfuss gangster film from 1996, which I remember more for Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's exasperated pan on their show. In the intervening years, Bishop has befriended Quentin Tarantino, who, treating him like the kitsch he loves to collect, cast him in "Kill Bill." Tarantino's name is stamped on the new movie's credits as a producer. The whole thing feels like the sort of picture Tarantino would make if he weren't such an ingenious B-movie artist: a genre exercise that's more studious than entertaining. "Hell Ride" is slavish as homage and not terribly interesting as moviemaking. It works better if you think of it as 83 minutes inside a tannery.
The plot pits Pistolero and his two bike buddies - Eric Balfour and Michael Madsen, a Tarantino regular - against a pretty good Vinnie Jones and whoever else was responsible for murdering an old friend of the gang. Madsen wears a ruffled tuxedo shirt that, in every scene, makes him look like the best man sneaking out of a bridesmaid's motel room in 1977. I don't think the character would pass a breathalyzer test. David Carradine and Dennis Hopper are here, too, because omitting them would be like throwing a beach party and not inviting Frankie and Annette.
It seems as if Bishop spent years looking for someplace to put his favorite banter, his favorite scene from Hopper's "Easy Rider" (the acid trip), and his favorite strippers. "Hell Ride" is a monument to all of it, not to mention an occasion for Bishop to realize a wish to be Serge Gainsbourg - well, sort of realize, since there's more throat-cutting than love-making. Really, the movie seems to exist to flatter Tarantino. All the bikers have nicknames - Comanche, the Gent, Opium - à la Mr. White and Mr. Pink, and the violence strains mightily to evoke the sadism in a Tarantino film. It's "Reservoir Hogs."