Action Heroes on Bikes

Don’t ask why, but I watched King Kong last weekend — the 1976 remake that most people would rather forget.

King Kong 1976 movie posterIn addition to being a bad movie, it was an interesting period piece from the 1970s. An evil oil company, Petrox, is personified by Fred Wilson, played by Charles Grodin. Jessica Lange plays Dwan, a helpless, passive, airheaded, damsel in distress. I really don’t know what Kong saw in her, but the character was pretty much par for the course for women’s roles in big-budget action movies of the time…and of previous times…and the times that followed — until Ellen Ripley came along, thank God.

What I found interesting was that the hero of the film was Jeff Bridges‘ character, Jack Prescott, a primate paleontologist who also happens to be an archetypal 70’s hippie environmentalist. Again: He’s the hero.

This was in 1976, with the 1973 oil crisis and the 1973-1974 stock market crash both in recent memory. Another factor was the recent success of Jaws.

I can just imagine a movie studio executive with a cigar in one corner of his mouth and screaming out the other corner, Give me a script right now, dammit, with a huge dangerous animal, some stock characters and no goddamn plot. Got it? Good guys. Bad Guys. A dame to look at, and a big ass animal! I don’t care what it is — chipmunk, a frog, or a fluffy kitten — as long as it’s huge and has sharp teeth! You’ve got 15 minutes!

And 15 minutes later, a script came back with this bit of dialogue:

Jack Prescott: Even an environmental rapist like you wouldn’t be asshole enough to destroy a unique new species of animal.

Fred Wilson: Bet me.


But what caught my attention was this 20-second sequence:

Nice dismount, Jack.

The movie doesn’t show how Jack Prescott acquires the bike. It’s set in New York City, so presumably he stole it.

King Kong Screenshot - Jeff Bridges on a Bike

Later in the movie, Kong battles helicopters from atop the World Trade Center and causes some military casualties. In hindsight — and in this context — it’s pretty interesting that Jack is definitely not “supporting the troops.” He cheers for the big gorilla.

This could have been an entire new genre. It’s hard to think of another big-budget action movie where the hero rides to the rescue on a bicycle. Can you?

Well, Premium Rush will change that — and from the looks of the trailer, it won’t be a change for the better.

Aside from some nice trick riding, this film looks like it’ll be awful for the image of urban cyclist — reinforcing the stereotype of the high-adrenalin scofflaw bike messenger who takes out his aggression on taxis. Like King Kong, this movie is set in New York City. Also like King Kong the protagonist has a love interest who he needs to protect — but he protects her with his awesome bike messenger skills.

And this love interest, well they really made and effort to show us the tattoo on her shoulder. Look, moviegoing twentysomething demographic! These are cool people! Don’t you want to get on a fixie and ride into the path of a taxi too!




With their monster movie reboot, the hack screenwriters of the mid-70’s came up with more topical political context in 15 minutes than there appears will be in Premium Rush. I’m expecting a step backwards for the image of cycling. Let’s hope it bombs at the box office.

Really, for an action hero on a bicycle, nobody’s ever topped BMX Bandit. I’d pay to see a full-length movie based on these characters:

Have I missed any movies with a positive portrayal of a cyclist as an action hero? Better yet, where there was any social context to the hero’s use of a bike? Let me know.

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18 thoughts on “Action Heroes on Bikes”

  1. Ted Johnson says:

    Richard Masoner referred me to this bit of ridiculous awesomeness:

  2. Darrell Dement says:

    There’s always Kevin Bacon taking out the drug dealer on his bike in Quicksilver. Well … maybe not.

  3. M says:

    Don’t forget Pee-wee’s Big Adventure!

  4. BluesCat says:

    Hey, it’s a good thing I’ve taken a day off today. If I’d been at my desk my laughter would have disrupted my entire office.

    I dunno, Ted. Think of the Fast and Furious franchise. The “heroes” of those movies destroy hundreds of thousands of automobiles and transportation infrastructure, not to mention probably injuring or killing many innocent bystanders (although they don’t show THAT in the flicks).

    But every release of a new Fast and Furious movie results in a significant uptick in street racing, accidents and sales of high performance auto parts:
    Increased accident rates: Fast and Furious. And people, especially young males, LIKE that!

    So maybe we NEED a lawless bike hero for the movies! It’ll make bicycles COOL. It may increase the urge to “live on the edge” for some folks.

    Hey! I’ve got an idea! But I’ve already gone too long with this post, and don’t want to take up any more room here, so I’ll put it over on my own blog:
    Pedaling Fast and Furious

  5. Molly says:

    E.T.? Haven’t seen it in a while but I recall a flying bike saving an alien’s life. At least that’s what I gather from the cover.

  6. I share you feelings about Premium Rush. Saw the trailer yesterday – great, cycling without breaks as fast as you can while taking out side mirrors with chains. We need more of that!

  7. Mike Myers says:

    Just when I thought the fixed gear thing was going to peter out, along comes “Premium Rush”. I guess I’ll see it, if only to notice how many times Joseph Gordon-Levitt is actually riding a singlespeed and not a fixed gear.

  8. Nick says:

    Jeff Goldblum’s character in “Independance day”
    rides a bike.

  9. Gene @ BU says:

    Premium Rush – Ya, that’s pretty much like my morning commute, except I wear a helmet and have lights and ride in bike lanes and use hand signals …

    This seems like a fun B rated low budget action flick based on my NYC messenger cowboy idols. Just once I would like to ride down 5th Ave like a bike messenger without getting killed and still get the girl in the end. I hope this flick makes it to Hulu so I can watch it free on a cold winter night while playing Pro Cycling Manager on the xBox. Only in the good old USA can you have a grand adventure without ever leaving your family room.

  10. clever-title says:

    Why is one of the cavemen from the Geico ads the hero of King Kong? I had a hard time telling the human from the “ape” in that clip.

  11. teeber says:

    Let’s not forget 1986’s “Rad”. Our protagonist battles off an evil sponsor, all the while balancing school and his budding BMX career.

  12. And who can forget Paul Newman romancing Katherine Ross on a bicycle in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” to the musical interlude of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” . . . okay, Butch Cassidy comes to a tragic end but I think we can all agree that he also got the girl.

  13. Ted Johnson says:

    I don’t think Butch Cassidy, Pee Wee, or Elliot (from ET) actually qualify as action heroes. But since I didn’t provide a definition, I’m not going to nitpick after the fact.

    There doesn’t seem to be a good definition online of what is an action hero — at least not one that wouldn’t disqualify Jack Prescott and Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in Premium Rush).

    This is the definition from TV Tropes:

    An Action Hero is a form of protagonist who primarily uses combat to achieve his goals in a story. If there’s something in his way, his main response is to beat it up. This could be because he doesn’t have the patience or skills for any other method, or because he just doesn’t have the time. But then again, maybe he actually does try other methods first but it always seems to turn out that Violence Really Is The Answer.

    My soft definition would be that an action hero is the protagonist in a movie characterized by action. He/she must be a hero in a conflict between good and evil. He/she perseveres against incredible odds and obstacles.

    Jack Prescott spends most of his screen time in King Kong being outraged and/or running around screaming. He does rescue Dwan at one point in the beginning of the movie, but even that merely involves running away effectively — which is something that Dwan didn’t think of on her own.

  14. Butch Cassidy carried a gun and robbed banks and trains, Ted. Are you saying that robbing banks and trains does not qualify as “evil”? And surely, if Katherine Ross’s character loved him, Butch Cassidy, our protagonist, was also redeemable, and thus “good”. He is a romantic, action, cowboy hero who occasionally road a bike.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      As regards bicycles, Butch Cassidy was a quitter. After one little problem on a bike, he throws down the bike and says, “The future’s all yours, you lousy bicycles.”

      And he returned to his comfort zone — the horse — however expensive and messy, and clearly insensitive its carbon hoof print.

  15. BluesCat says:

    Yeah, to a REAL action hero, the gal is just a prop to help him show off his bronze muscles and be rescued. Think of Fabio on the romance novel cover, looking sternly off stage left, his shirt in tatters, his shoulder length hair streaming back stage right in the wind. The gal is at his feet, wrapped around his leg, staring up at him in unabashed adoration.

    Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator is an action hero.
    Hugh Grant in Love Actually ain’t.
    Sylvester Stallone in Rambo is an action hero.
    Richard Gere in Runaway Bride ain’t.
    Bruce Willis in Die Hard is an action hero.
    Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle ain’t.


    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Jack Prescott does a good job leading Dwan away from danger. She’s like a passive obedient sheep who keeps getting stolen without much effort. And Jack is like the shepherd who has to bravely go in and lead her out again. Yet Jack also tries to protect Kong too. He strikes a deal with Petrox to capture Kong alive in New York, and naively takes their word that they will, while having no leg to stand on if they don’t. Whenever the conflict heats up, Jack is hiding in the shadows waiting for a chance to safely reclaim his stupid stolen livestock, Dwan–which he does at some personal risk, but never involving combat.

      At the end of the movie, I give Jack credit for realizing the kind of vacuous person Dwan is. Like a Barbie doll: pretty on the outside, empty on the inside. She’s wanting to talk about a relationship, and Jack realizes that she’s the kind of woman who just lets herself get taken by giant gorillas without even a Fay Wray scream of protest.

      Jack: You know what I earn?
      Dwan: Do you think I need furs?
      Jack: Yes. Excitement is in your blood like dope. You’re going to need new fixes I’m not able to give you.
      Dwan: Don’t be stupid.
      Dwan: The hell with furs. Tell me, does that nice offer still stand?
      Jack: It depends on Kong. He’s bigger than both of us, know what I mean?
      Dwan: Don’t tease me, I’m serious.
      Jack: (Distracted) Of course. I know where I’ve seen that view before. I think we’ve got a chance. Sit tight, I’ve got to make a phone call.

      Did you catch that? Jack changes the subject before he gets trapped in a corner. And while he’s on the phone, what do you suppose happens? Yep. Big hairy hand comes through the door and grabs Dwan, and she just stands there and makes it easy.

      That was Jack’s most heroic moment. In my version of what happened after the events of the movie, Jack goes back to academia and marries a woman with brains. He writes an expose about how corporate greed and political corruption are driving the rate of extinction. It doesn’t sell well. Dwan has a good year on talk shows, and then has a celebrity meltdown. She’s forced to go into rehab, but the doctor’s at the clinic discover that she’s not actually addicted to Valium, she just acts that way.

      Jack commutes by bike. Dwan doesn’t.

      I’ve been thinking about this way too much.

  16. BluesCat says:

    Right, Ted, and that’s why Jeff Bridge’s Jack Prescott is only a borderline action hero. A REAL action hero wouldn’t have pilfered a bicycle, he would have appropriated a ’75 Pontiac Trans Am by removing its current owner though the driver’s side window. He would have then screamed, tires smoking, through the city streets directly towards Kong; losing auto body parts to minor accidents the whole way. When Kong started to climb the building, this Charles-Atlas-physiqued version of Prescott would have brought the car to a screeching halt, hopped out and shouted:

    “Hey! You! Furry Mountain! Drop the girl or I’ll give you a full body haircut with THIS!”

    At which point he would have reached into the back seat of the Pontiac and pulled out an M61 Vulcan Gatling-gun which had magically appeared there and — holding it like a giant weed-eater — sprayed about a thousand rounds in a straight line above Kong’s head.

    So, getting back OT, in order to have a REAL Bike Action Hero he needs to be a swashbuckling ANTI Bike Hero the likes of Captain Jack Sparrow. Sparrow makes for a poor example of a pirate, and from what I can tell of the trailer for Premium Rush the protagonist there makes for a poor example of an urban cyclist. It might just work, although I STILL think my idea, above, is MUCH better.

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