One of the most famous 60’s biker flicks, still being around due to Jack Nicholson’s leading act and the original Hell’s Angels doing cameo ride while the film credits are rolling. In fact, it was the first feature movie in which Hell’s Angels MC appeared – for about one minute we can clearly see Sonny Barger and the Oakland’s chapter. Directed by Richard Rush, who later scored such cinematic treasures as "Psych-Out" (1968) or "Getting Straight" (1970) and photographed by Laszlo Kovacs (credited in movie as Leslie), who obviously made a great film career later on by delivering a string of top notch movies including contercultural classic "Easy Rider" (1969), "Five Easy Pieces" (1970), "Harold and Maude" (1971) and "Shampoo" (1975), it tapped effortlessly into the youth market. In fact this duo just couldn’t go wrong, hence the effect of their work has retained a minor cult status till today.
When the movie hit US drive-ins in 1967, distributed by AIP, it became a wildly successful endeavour. It got very favourable press reviews praising Nicholson’s role and director’s talent for picturing a society in transition. These opinions even now hold up, but only to a certain point. Rush definitely filled well his drawing, stylishly boiling the biker mixture of violent soul, rebellious attitude and dedication to booze, drugs and sex, but on the other hand became at large limited by the exploitative frame – this was after all nothing more, but a B-movie flash. Jack Nicholson’s acting is fairly correct, but it’s nothing you couldn’t live without as it seems that his smaller role in Monte Hellman’s acid western – "The Shooting" (released the same year) was performed with much more passion and dedication.
However, as a drive-in biker flick "Hells Angels On Wheels" passes full-on, only slightly falling behind such pictures as "The Born Losers" (1967) or "Hell’s Belles" (1969), which are kept in my mind as the best biker movies of the epoch. This is the shit to be recommended to any genre fan as it can hardly do any damage. The script draws a type of middle class dropout & biker – Poet (Jack Nicholson), who works as a gas station attendant, but cannot hold his horses enought o keep the job and casually joins the Hells Angels party when fired over verbal abuse of a customer. Although young and restless, Poet is still kind of uptight, hanging between the world of traditional morality and the revolutionary fire of chopper’s engine. This is spelled out by a biker mama, whom he tries to bed and then convince to drop the club, but who’s too deeply grounded in the violent world of MC to be up for a fresh start with a half-straight chap. Not an unique idea, but good enough for Jack Nicholson’s fans, who will find this role quite similar to his later performance in "Five Easy Pieces".
As the story drags on, we witness random brutality of the MC causing a fatal accident, which becomes a key for the plot. We face police prosecution against the club, we ride through California’s roads and deserts, see a genuine biker wedding and Poet’s biker baptism when he’s accepted as a prospect for the club. Although Poet becomes an officially accepted Hells Angels member eventually, tension he holds on to never goes away though causing open rivalry with club’s prez – Buddy (Adam Roarke) and opening a door to the dramatic finale marked with a nasty cock fight, which leads to a tragedy. The last scene – I need to stress clearly – is a real blunder in my opinion as it's clumsily brushing off this whole edgy vibe built beforehand leaving the viewer crying "why like this?" There are some other equally lame story solutions here, but nothing bugs me like this one.
Nevertheless, the thing worthy a genuine acclaim in "Hells Angels On Wheels" is Kovacs’ cinematography. A fluid, natural and very spot-on frames keep you in all the time. A real artist’s eye gives you the right perspective no matter if it’s a bar brawl, if they’re choppers riding in lines or intimate moments of the main characters. Although this was a time when Kovacs started getting weary of shooting exploitation movies, he gave them all he got anyway, for which these few pictures are so rewarding and easily separable from the concurrent, but sloppily made low budget lot. As the legend says, this movie became Sonny Barger’s favourite biker flick at that time. We might only wonder if he changed his mind after scoring "The Hells Angels '69" two years later?