The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club ride into the small California town of Wrightsville and party, irritating the solid citizens who become vengeance-crazed vigilantes. Johnny Strabler, head of the gang, falls for local girl Kathie and reforms, but takes a beating from the locals.
'What are you rebelling against?' a townie asks the leader of the pack, only to have him deliver a signature line for 1950s’ juvenile delinquency by sneering 'what have you got?' This once-controversial item (banned in Britain for decades) from producer Stanley Kramer (always heavy on ‘message’ speeches) and director Laszlo Benedek founded the genre of biker gang movie, and offers a pouting, twitching Brando in an iconic leather jacket and Tom of Finland cap as the motorcycle crazy to beat.
It was sold at the time with the tag-line ‘that Streetcar man has a new desire!’, but was actually a step down for the new-minted star, who brings all his method mumbling to this B-length Columbia quickie which wraps cartoonish social comment in exploitative scenes of tearaways tearing up the town, hassling the indignant straight citizens, ragging on the elder generation (though the hoods all seem well into their thirties) and stirring up the townsfolk into a lynching frenzy. Typical of the wounded machismo often found in 1950s leading men is a scene in which Marlon is held down by the mob and brutalised, allowing the camera to linger lovingly on his beautifully bruised mug as he makes a slightly-sensitive thug seem like a martyr.
It’s a mix of impressive on-location cycle spills (the roaring-down-the-empty-road opening is still a grabber) and embarrassingly hokey rumbles on obvious poverty row sound-stages. Lee Marvin is superbly grungy as a supporting troublemaker, and his character doesn’t sell out by reforming for the love of a weedy but decent woman.
Brando's magnetism is eternal.