Thursday, February 13, 2014

Australian Audient: BMX Bandits

This is the second in my series Australian Audient, in which I am watching one Australian-made film per month and then writing about it here.

Normally a bad 1980s Australian movie about kids on BMX bikes would have been quickly forgotten, even by Australians. But BMX Bandits has a special claim to enduring fame: It's the movie in which we first saw Nicole Kidman, then just 16 years old, on screen.

Here's my review:


About halfway through BMX Bandits, after I'd just observed that the bad guys would be a lot better off if they were just carrying guns, my wife turned to me and said "You do realize this is a kids movie, don't you?"

Ah, that makes sense.

Even when shifting one's critical faculties to acknowledge the intended audience for this movie, BMX Bandits is still pretty silly. It involves a trio of teenage bike riders in Sydney's Manley neighborhood who stumble across a criminal conspiracy -- but not before first stumbling over each other. P.J. (Angelo D'Angelo) and Goose (James Lugton) are riding their bikes through a supermarket parking lot when an employee, Judy (Nicole Kidman, in her first screen performance), pushes a line of shopping carts in their path, causing hundreds of dollars of damage to both bikes. For some reason this accident gets her fired, and the three team up to find the money to repair their bikes. (Coincidentally, Judy is also a BMX rider at their same skill level.)

While attempting to steal lobsters out of traps as a way to scare up some extra money, they come across a submerged box of special walkie-talkies, which have been stashed there by a local criminal element looking to pull off a major bank heist. These special devices -- straight from the U.S. of A., according to the crime boss played by Bryan Marshall -- will allow them to talk to each other and hear what the police are saying, without the police hearing them. This is the key element in pulling off the heist. The bikers, of course, know nothing about this, and grab the walkie-talkies in order to sell them.

You'd think these walkie-talkies would just be the way the kids get ensnared in this criminal plot, but the whole movie becomes about the criminals -- led by the hapless duo of Whitey (David Argue) and Moustache (John Ley) -- trying to get these walkie-talkies back from them.

It would seem that the movie should center on something more intrinsically valuable than walkie-talkies, but it's clear that BMX Bandits has a different idea of what's intrinsically valuable to its audience. The flimsy plot exists primarily as a showcase for stunts on BMX bikes, and that in itself is no crime, especially when the stunts are shot with as much panache as DP John Seale brings to the proceedings. Seale's a future four-time Oscar nominee who would win a statue for nothing less than The English Patient, so it's no surprise this is the best part of the film. Seale sets up his camera in all sorts of low angles attached to all kinds of moving vehicles (both bikes and cars), and he allows the BMX stunts to shine.

Stunts alone won't get you through this movie without checking your watch repeatedly. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith has no grasp on pacing, as a ridiculously drawn-out chase scene in the second act goes on for something like 20 minutes, including an absurd scene where the bikers take their bikes down a water slide. The fact that they aren't riding the bikes, but rather corralling them at their sides, makes the scene simultaneously both less and more absurd. The other ludicrous aspect of this chase is that the bikers easily maneuver their way through various obstacles, while the villains -- on foot, mind you -- hit each obstacle in goofy ways, yet still remain only a couple paces behind the escaping bikes.

The bumbling of the two primary villains is the dead giveaway that this is, of course, a movie intended for children. Some of the silliness must be forgiven on those grounds. Still, BMX Bandits is surprisingly slow for a 90-minute film full of bicycle stunts. It has its share of kitschy moments, but not nearly enough to take a place in the hallowed So Bad It's Good hall of fame.

Of course, what most people seeking out BMX Bandits will want to know is how Kidman fares. Sadly, the results here are also of relatively little interest. Neither is she bad, nor does she register as someone with the charisma to one day become a major movie star and Oscar winner. You're liable to chuckle when she comes on screen for the first time, just because these ruddy cheeks and this frizzy hair is not how you're accustomed to seeing the former Ms. Tom Cruise. There's something a little piggish, though not in a bad way, about her teenage appearance. Other than that, though, there's nothing remarkable about her performance.

Those watching this movie for a laugh should definitely stick it out to the finale, which involves no fewer than 4,000 Sydney teenagers on bikes, descending on the villains in a pack of such density that it's hard to imagine how they aren't all knocking each other over. Sorry, I should have said: Spoiler alert.


Nineteen eighty-three must have been a really good, or at least prolific, year in Australian cinema, as both of the movies I've watched so far in this series (the other being Phar Lap in January) came out that year. In March, we'll jump forward nine years to 1992, to see how Baz Luhrmann got his start with Strictly Ballroom

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