Angel Unchained is far from being an obscure entry in the biker genre, but somehow I’ve managed to miss seeing it all these years–rather surprising given the film’s supercool cast, including Don Stroud, Luke Askew, Aldo Ray, and one of my favorite unsung actors, Larry Bishop. I finally got around to watching the movie, and while it’s a fairly standard example of the chopper opera, that cast makes it a worth checking out.
As the movie opens, we find the Exiles biker gang – er, club, led by president Pilot (Larry Bishop) and vice president Angel (Don Stroud), hanging around an otherwise-empty amusement park. One of the Exiles is a chubby Peter Jackson-lookin’ guy in a top hat and magician’s cloak, enjoying himself astride a mighty stallion on the carousel. Eventually, what seems to be a rival bike gang makes the scene–I say “seems to be” because a fistfight breaks out between the new arrivals and the Exiles, but later on in the movie, I’d swear some of those rival bikers are sitting around the bar drinking beers with the Exiles, so I don’t know what the hell was happening here.
The brawling bikers slug their way throughout the amusement park, the fight spilling onto some of the rides–and I’m tellin’ you, when I saw these guys dukin’ it out on moving roller coaster cars, I started to wonder what this movie’s insurance rider looked like. Soon, the fuzz arrives to break up the fight and Angel helps the slightly injured and limping Pilot away from the scene. They hide out in a train car, where the two share a strangely quiet interlude, Angel confessing to Pilot that he’s “feeling strung out” and wants to ride alone. Pilot figures he owes Angel a favor for hauling his hash out of the fire, so he’s willing to let Angel leave the club–as long as he hands over his colors. Angel peels off his vest and hands it to Pilot, who awkwardly flagellates himself with the vest for a moment.
Angel hits the road as the opening credits roll, a soul-crushing ballad wailing as we see our hero tooling down the highway on his chopper, working at a Chevron station, and eating in a multitude of diners. Finally, Angel arrives at what appears to be a gas station/barber shop. As he gasses up his bike, a passel of good ol’ boys sit around on their dune buggies, shooting the breeze. The good ol’ boys sneer in disgust as a hippie truck pulls up to the pumps and a beefy fro-topped hippie goes for the nozzle. Hippie chick Merrilee (the befreckled Tyne Daly, pre-The Enforcer and Cagney and Lacey) checks Angel out, but the good ol’ boys tell the hippies the station is closed. Not one to stand for injustice, Angel shoves the nozzle into the hippie-mobile and gives fro-hippie the nod to gas it up.
The good ol’ boys don’t take too kindly to this greasy new arrival bein’ all friendly to the smelly hippies. Stepping up and mad-dogging our hero, one of the good ol’ boys threateningly drops the handful of change Angel gave him for his gas onto the pavement. “Wow, man – you really corny,” Angel says. “You watch a little too much of the late show, huh?” Merrilee intervenes, telling Angel she’ll feed him in exchange for a ride on his bike.
Crisis averted through peaceful hippie means, Angel hits the road with Merrilee snuggled on the seat behind him. Fro-hippie follows in the hippie-mobile and soon they arrive at a flaming shithole in the middle of the desert – the commune Merrilee and fro-hippie belong to. “It’s tackier closer up,” Merrilee says. Angel meets Tremaine (Luke Askew), the leader of the hippies, who tells him he’s welcome to stay if he’ll help work the commune. This is followed by a montage (accompanied by yet another agonizingly heartfelt song) of Angel engaging in hippie activities like pottery-making and tilling the soil, culminating in Angel and Merrilee standing in the back of the hippie truck as Merrilee shucks her shirt (no nudity from Tyne, however – she’s artfully hidden behind the slats in the bed of the truck). Angel gets an eyeful and Merrilee asks what he’s staring at. He says it’s just his “all-American lust,” but she scolds him and says he’s hung up on the old ways. Uh, okay.
All this hippie horseshit threatens to dull the flick down somethin’ fierce, but just when I felt like I couldn’t take another shot of someone working the soil or Tremaine throwing the I Ching, the good ol’ boys arrive on their dune buggies and stir the fudge. Angel jabs one of ‘em in the shoulder with a pitchfork and the good ol’ boys get all bent out of shape, telling the hippies they have one week to split before their commune is wiped out. During a hippie confab, Tremaine asks Angel to bring in his old pals the Exiles to help defend the commune. Angel is hesitant, even when Tremaine begs him to do it for the children. “It’s like asking a degenerate to babysit your kid,” Angel says, but he’s kinda digging on Merrilee and decides to give it a go, telling Merrilee “I don’t see why you didn’t turn me onto a peace trip before I did a number on that guy, y’know?”
Angel tries to apologize to the good ol’ boys but another fight breaks out amidst a herd of cattle. Finally, our hero returns to the Exiles, asking Pilot and the others to help him out. The bikers agree, setting the stage for plenty of wacky antics as the two cultures clash.
Angel Unchained is probably a little less rambly than a lot of other biker flicks, but it kind of kicks into high gear once the bikers are hanging out with the hippies, and particularly once Pilot, Magician and new vice president Shotgun help themselves to the “special” cookies being baked up by an old Indian named Injun. This somehow turns into a major plot point, though, so hang in there.
The hippie/biker dichotomy isn’t anything new to these flicks – it was an easy target, what with both groups representing the anti-establishment youth of the day, one side taking the peace-and-love angle while the other takes a more overt approach to living life on their own terms (and I doubt I have to tell you which ones I’d rather watch for 90 minutes). Some flicks do it better than others, though, and Angel Unchained handles it pretty well. The one truly standout scene, however, is when Pilot and some of the Exiles accompany a few of the hippies on a grocery run, meeting with trouble from the good ol’ boys, of course. When the fighting starts, Pilot takes a seat in a rocking chair next to the local Sheriff (Aldo Ray) and they both simply watch the fur fly, commenting quietly on the weather and whatnot. Eventually, the Sheriff says he should put a stop to the brawling, at which point Pilot casually reaches over, pulls the Sheriff’s gun, and fires a couple shots in the air to get everyone’s attention. It’s the best scene in the whole damn movie and really drives home how terrific Larry Bishop was, and still is: he stole a big chunk of Kill Bill Volume 2 with his portrayal of the strip club owner who fires Michael Madsen, and Bishop’s Hell Ride is a severely under-appreciated modern biker epic (but that’s gonna have to wait for its own review).
As things progress, the bikers become as fed up with the hippies as we in the audience were about 80 minutes prior, and decide to cut out – but not without a heaping helping of Injun’s special recipe. The various plot threads ultimately pay off with some very satisfying violence and an ending that I guess teaches us all some sort of lesson about something. Not one of my favorite biker flicks, but again, worth seeing for the cast alone, particularly Larry Bishop.
Apes: *** (for the cast)
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