Friday, June 4, 2021


 by Anthony King

Fred Ward is the original Buckaroo Banzai.

As the sun started to set on the biker movies of the 1960s and 70s, a brief fascination with with dirt bikes and Motocross swept the box office (not really) in the '80s. Dirt bike-sploitation, if you will. We transitioned from hogs to smaller bikes easier to maneuver in order to do tricks and race over rougher terrain. Movies like Paul Verhoeven's Spetters, George Romero's Knight Riders, and even little Ralphie Parker got in on the fun with The Dirt Bike Kid. You also had movies like Megaforce, or even Mad Max and its sequels which brought the smaller motorcycles into the fold. And then you had a wholly original film, co-written by one of the Monkees, combining the dirt bike fad, some science fiction elements, a touch of incest, and a good old fashioned western to make one of the strangest films I've ever seen.
Co-written by Michael Nesmith and directed by William Dear, Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann stars Fred Ward as the world's best dirt bike rider, the titular Lyle Swann, who, while testing out some new high-tech equipment in the California desert, gets lost and accidentally enters the field wherein a team of scientists are attempting to send a machine back in time. Unbeknownst to him, his team of mechanics, or the scientists, Swann is sent back with the machine 105 years to 1877, and while the scientists are able to bring back the machine, Swann has sped off on his dirt bike to find his way back to his crew. He happens across a group of bandits played by Peter Coyote, Richard Masur (as I've never seen him), and Tracey Walter, who have just killed a man. Still clueless as to the time travel, Swann retreats and speeds into a village that includes Ed Lauter as a priest, Belinda Bauer as his daughter, and L.Q. Jones as the sheriff, where everyone thinks Swann is the devil due to his bright red, head-to-toe dirt bike suit and motorcycle. Eventually the bandits steal the bike (“the machine”), Swann realizes he's stuck in a different time, he has a little sex with his great great great great aunt, and we end with an Old West standoff on a cliff that includes a helicopter.

During the credit roll at the very beginning there's an explanation to the time travel; they dedicate all of three seconds to what seems to be a key piece of information. Unfortunately, I sneezed and missed it. Having finished the movie while in a state of confusion, I went back and listened to this key piece of information that I missed and was still bewildered. While I try not to use too much brain power to make sense of obviously-fictional movies (especially those dealing in time travel), this odd combination of time travel and dirt bikes and westerns left me in a state of awe. Whether good or bad awe I couldn't say. But I haven't been able to stop thinking about this movie since I watched it last week. All this to say, Timerider seems like the perfect movie to watch during Junesploitation for Westerns! or Sci Fi! or '80s Comedy! or any of the Free Space! days.
Like any movie of the '80s, to make it at least memorable, you need an interesting score. Having one of the Monkees as your author means you also have at your disposal a composer. Driven by heavy synthesizers and chunky distorted guitars, Nesmith managed to create the sound John Carpenter turned to in the late '80s and early '90s for his scores for Prince of Darkness, They Live, and In the Mouth of Madness. While the score is exactly what you'd imagine Swann to be hearing in his state-of-the-art helmet at the beginning of the movie, the sound that absolutely oozes 1980s adds another layer of surreality to the time hop back to the 1800s Old West.

The comedy of Timerider, intentional and unintentional, is well worth the price of admission. For one, Swann's bike never seems to run out of gas. When Claire, the pastor's daughter, hides Swann, they haven't been together two minutes before they're naked and thrusting in her bed. Tracey Walter's nose is shot off in the first half of the movie and he continues to speak in a cartoonish, nasally voice. And in order to disguise Swann so he doesn't stand out in his bright red duds, they simply place a poncho over said duds. The intentional comedy, though, is absolutely hysterical. After the sex, Swann and Claire are sitting in bed and she talks about the history of her family surviving the elements of the unsettled landscape, ultimately revealing her FAMILIAL RELATION to Swann. He responds, “Claire, do you realize how weird everything you just said to me was?” We know Fred Ward's comedic skills from Tremors, and he gets to flex those chops here as well.
It's hard not to see some Back to the Future Part III inspiration here. I'll leave it up to you, dear reader, to decide which is the better movie. Timerider, though, is chock full of character actors we all love to see telling a unique story. While I'm still scratching my head a week later, this is the perfect sci-fi western comedy to include in your month of exploitation.

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