Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man: The Best Movie You Never Saw

Welcome to The best movie you have NEVER seena column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction over the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either ahead of its time and/or has aged like fine wine. This week we will be looking at HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN!

THE STORY: The year is 1996 – the future. A motorcyclist (Mickey Rourke) and his cowboy friend (Don Johnson) band together to save their favorite bar from going under. To pull this off, they plan a heist but end up in possession of a massive load of a popular new street drug called “Crystal Dream”.

PLAYERS: Starring: Mickey Rourke, Don Johnson, Chelsea Field, Giancarlo Esposito, Tom Sizemore and Daniel Baldwin. Directed by Simon Wincer.

“I was lucky enough to work on a film with Don, the only bad part was that the director was bad, but Don knew so much about things behind the camera that he used to tell the director where to put the camera. It would be my pleasure to let someone know that don johnson is a very amazing actor and has been underrated for many years i mean the guy who looks so good all he has to do is blink and you can’t take your eyes off him.-Mickey Rourke’s Instagram

harley davidson and marlboro man don johnson mickey rourkeTHE STORY: Both Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson were transitioning in 1991. Rourke was coming off a string of disastrous films, including the much maligned Wild orchid and Desperate hourswhile Johnson was still struggling to establish himself as a leading man in the wake of “Miami Police” ends his television career. Thus, the two signed on to do this high-profile, big-budget action movie, which I’m sure seemed like a can’t-miss proposition at the box office for both of them—this is the heyday of R-rated action.

Suffice it to say, the film was met with uniform hostility from critics, with many scoffing at the product placement in the title, where the leads were named after their favorite brand of motorcycle and cigarette. Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid this was not. It didn’t help that the film was marred by public bad-mouthing of Rourke and Johnson before it opened. Ultimately, the film’s box office performance ended up being disastrous, grossing only $7.4 million domestically. Ouch.

harley davidson and marlboro man don johnson mickey rourke

WHY IT’S GREAT: Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man benefiting greatly from the second wave of popularity that both of its leading men enjoyed later in their careers. At the time, Mickey Rourke was seen as a pain in the ass who was wasting his talent, and to be sure, the man soon left Hollywood entirely to take up boxing, eventually making a huge comeback with The breaker years later. Whether or not his reputation was deserved is debatable, but in retrospect many of his late eighties films hold up well, so perhaps something else was going on in the critics’ minds. Ditto Don Johnson trying to break out of TV, something you just didn’t do back then. You were either a TV actor or a film actor. You’d get the occasional Bruce Willis or Denzel Washington, but for the most part the jump just wasn’t made – which is a shame as Johnson made some good flicks in the era, including Dead Bang and the crazy underrated Hotspot.

Flash-forward to 2019, and both stars are icons in their own ways. While Rourke’s never-ending streak of DTV movies has tarnished his reputation somewhat, so did he The breaker and proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he still has it where it counts. As for Johnson, he hit the comeback trail with The Big Cold of July and contributed memorable roles in films like Fight in cell block 99 and Alex of Venicetogether with Knives out and HBOs Guardians. Johnson is back in the spotlight, making this an opportune time to revisit Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man.

harley davidson and marlboro man don johnson mickey rourke

I’ll be the first to admit – it’s not a great movie. But if you can take it as silly fun, evocative of its time, it’s a memorable little lost nineties gem. You get exactly what kind of movie this is going to be right from the start, as Rourke foils a convenience store robbery to save a beautiful young cashier (played by Kelly Hu) while Ted Wass (from “Blossom”!) snarls, “I ‘ I will cut you long, wide and deep engine head!” It’s a modern (for the time) version of an old Roger Corman B-movie, and in many ways predicted Fast and furious franchise, with its emphasis on tight-knit groups of outlaws becoming “family” and fetishized vehicles, here motorcycles rather than cars.

Rourke takes the piss out of his role, with Harley a cool guy but also one with a broken heart, with the best twist being that he has no idea how to fire a gun despite his best efforts. Likewise, Johnson brings an outlaw con man to his denim cowboy part, and had this been a better film, you could easily see the two leading a whole series – but the film just isn’t quite good enough.

I bet the problems stem from poor villains, with Tom Sizemore suitably greasy even though he should have been second fiddle. Ditto Daniel Baldwin, who doesn’t appear to be enough of a physical threat to the big Rourke, or Johnson for that matter. Still, the film has some decent action set pieces and a fun supporting cast, including a very young Giancarlo Esposito and Vanessa Williams. Additionally, the score by Basil Poledouris is excellent, with good use of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted: Dead or Alive”.

BEST SCENE: Johnson’s bubbly Marlboro Man is a cool creation and he seems to be having the time of his life playing the part. I especially like when he lays out his life philosophy while kicking ass by the pool (Johnson seemed to have mad skills – with both this and “Miami Vice” often showing how good he was behind a cue ).

SEE IT: Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man is actually streaming for free this month on TubiTV.

SHOT: Again, I hesitate to call this a classic, but it’s an action movie I enjoy watching with some friends and a few beers. Heck, I don’t mind the fact that I’m a huge fan of both leads, and it’s an interesting look at a franchise that could have been with a better script and more creative direction.

harley davidson and the marlboro man don johnson mickey rourke poster

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