Exploiting the Holidays! Control Nathan Rabin 4.0: Rad (1986)
Welcome to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0: Payola with Honor. It’s the column where I give readers/patrons an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch and then write about in exchange for a one-time one hundred dollar pledge.
I feel doubly, or even triply blessed by this feature. It’s single-handedly allowed my monthly Patreon haul to increase rather than decrease every month, as was the case before I introduced it. But it’s also given me a lot of fun stuff to write about. Even when I haven’t necessarily enjoyed the movies I’ve written about for the column, like the dire big-screen cinematic sitcom/Gabe Kaplan vehicle Nobody's Perfekt or Police Academy 3: Back in Training, I’ve nevertheless gotten a lot out of the experience, if only because it’s allowed me to satiate my curiosity about some exquisitely random shit.
I appreciate that almost all of the choices so far have been on-brand. God bless you weirdoes, you really seem to have a sense of what kind of kitschy ephemera I will dig. That’s certainly the case with 1986’s Rad, a BMX exploitation movie that has attracted a cult following for a very good reason: it’s fucking amazing. And astonishingly bad. And amazing and awesome in its terribleness.
Though it’s maddeningly unavailable legally on home video, Rad has a bifurcated cult made up of both BMX riders and fans overjoyed to see their passion get the big screen treatment and trash aficionados like myself who cannot get enough of 1980s movies overflowing with montage sequences set to soaring, inspirational rock anthems and/or power ballads, wicked-awesome bike stunts and some of the cheesiest storytelling this side of Cool as Ice.
If you were super into BMX in 1986, when the film was released to paltry box-office and even worse reviews, chances are good that you didn’t just see Rad more than once in the theaters and love it: it was probably important to you as well. There simply weren’t many narrative movies about BMX when Rad was made. It was pretty much the only game in town, so bike lovers were willing to overlook and excuse an awful lot for the sake of some sweet-ass stunt riding.
Rad is less a motion picture than a threadbare delivery system for bike stunts. So it’s fitting that the movie was directed by Hal Needham, possibly the greatest stuntman of all time and a man who leveraged a painful lifetime of suffering for stars into a directorial career that included such smashes as Smokey & The Bandit, Hooper (which I covered for Forgotbusters), Cannonball Run, Cannonball Run II and Smokey & the Bandit 2.
You didn’t hire Hal Needham because you wanted a film to explore the complexities of human nature or expose the underlying crueltly of capitalism. You hired him because you were making a movie with stunts and no one was better at handling stunts than the world’s greatest stuntman with the possible exception of Jackie Chan, who, come to think of it, may deserve the title of world's greatest stuntman even more than Needham does.
In Rad, those stunts involve vehicles with two wheels rather than four but the essence remains the same. Rad isn’t a movie with stunts: it’s a stunt showcase that shakily assumes the form of a motion picture.
Rad opens in the most 1986 manner imaginable, with a montage of slow-motion BMX stunt riding set to the first of an endless series of fist-pumping anthems about chasing your dreams, reaching for the stars and never quitting. Basically every song in Rad is the musical equivalent of a Successories poster and that is fucking awesome.
All of the exquisitely cheesy tropes of 1980s movies that Team America: World Police lovingly satirize Rad plays completely straight, particularly in terms of montages set to fist-pumping power ballads.
In a performance that launched him to anonymity, twenty-three year old actor Bill Allen plays 17 year old BMX hotshot Cru Jones, a paperboy whose rule-breaking, authority-enraging, high flying style of bike riding makes him the Bart Simpson of his hometown. He perambulates about with an insouciant sneer that alternately says, “Eat my shorts”, “Cowabunga” and “Don’t have a cow, man.”
Cru lives to ride and rides to live so he lucks out when the loser little small town that he calls home improbably becomes the home of Hell track, a prestigious BMX event whose winner takes home a sweet one hundred thousand dollar prize and a Chevrolet Corvette. The plucky underdog wins a qualifying race and makes it to Hell track where he faces off against Bart Taylor (Bart Conner, gold medal-winning Olympics gymnast and husband of Nadia Comăneci), the face of the sport and a man the corrupt BMX establishment, as embodied in the corpulent, sweaty form of the wonderfully named Duke Best (Jack Weston) not only wants, but needs to win in order to keep his, um, corrupt, evil bicycle empire afloat.
Rad is pretty much the story of the 2016 Democratic Presidential race in allegorical form. Cru is, of course, Bernie. He’s the natural. He’s the people’s choice, a man who could easily have ridden the American public’s famous love of Jews and Socialism, and Jewish Socialists, to victory in the Presidential elections if only he hadn’t been the victim of an evil conspiracy to stop him.
Cru is as natural on his bike as Bernie is delivering a fiery stump speech to his army of devoted followers. Like the ornery septuagenarian, Cru is a hit with the ladies, and fellow BMX fanatic Christian Hollings (Lori Loughlin) is feeling the Bern, if I might abuse this metaphor even further.
Bart wants Christian to be part of his harem of big-haired women of easy virtue but once she sees how good Cru is at making his bicycle hop up and down and whatnot she only eyes for him.
At a high school function, Bart favors the locals with one of his signature highly choreographed dance routines.
For some reason this dance has announcers, not unlike the World Series or the Kentucky Derby, one of whom enthusiastically guesses of Bart and Christian, “Could it be that they’re going to bicycle boogie for you?”
I must admit, dear reader, that in the forty two years I’ve been on this planet, the phrase “bicycle boogie” has never once rattled around the old brain bone. I did not know such a concept even existed, and for many years I dated a woman whose very expensive passion was for dressage, which is essentially “horses dancing all fancy-like.” Yes, I knew all too well that competitive horse dancing was a thing, and also that it is very expensive to own horses, yet I never even imagined that two people could dance with each other while riding bicycles, that the bicycles themselves could boogie, as it were.
Now that I’ve seen a scene of just that I’m still not convinced that bicycling boogying is anything more than a bizarre fiction created solely for one singularly ridiculous scene in one singularly ridiculous movie.
Some movie’s cults can be pinned down to a single scene. That’s the bicycle boogie in Rad. It’s unforgettable enough in its wonderfully misguided audacity that it alone catapults this ripe slice of American cheese into the canon of Reagan-era cult classics.
For you see, it’s not cocky, arrogant champion Bart who ends up bicycle boogying with the lovely Christian onboard their sturdy bicycles but cocky, arrogant upstart Cru who seizes the moment—like Bernie Sanders seizing upon the alienation and dissatisfaction of voters fed up with corrupt establishment politics to start a revolution that will change politics forever—to bicycle boogie with the object of his desire to Real Life’s “Send Me an Angel.”
Yes, that’s right: Rad’s most unforgettably cheesy scene is scored to the same neon slab of synth-pop as key scenes in both Teen Wolf 2 (I’m half proud and half embarrassed that I remember that it was used during a riveting “studying for a test” montage) and The Wizard.
What is it about this one particular song that proved so irresistible to the decade’s most shameless filmmakers? I suppose you could argue that it was made to score particularly idiotic sequences in audience-insulting ephemera but that doesn’t make its central presence here any less iconically awesome.
The filmmakers desperately need for this sequence to be sexy, cool, sensual, hip. We need for Cru to be James Dean on a BMX bike, hell on two wheels, a stud whose bike is an extension of his virile sexuality. Instead he looks like an idiot hopping up and down on his bike like he's engaged in a mating call for morons.
There’s no touch, no flesh-on-flesh intimacy, no closeness, even, since if these two horny bike lovers get too close to each other they’ll crash and fall down and that won’t be erotic at all, although, to be fair, the only way the bicycle boogie here could be less sensual would be if both parties were on unicycles, Segways or Pogo sticks, and were wearing multi-colored beanies and playing the kazoo while lurching about awkwardly.
Christian is like the young people of America whipped into a frenzy of excitement over a “charismatic” outsider shaking everything up and Duke West is like Debbie Wasserman-Schultz: a malevolent figure out to sabotage the will of the people for the sake of the favorite and preserving the status quo. That of course makes Bart Hillary Clinton and just like a certain “Crooked” Hillary “Lock her up” Clinton, bad boy Bart expects to breeze to victory, and it is at this point, and this point only, that the metaphor really starts to break down.
Like Crooked Hillary and her minions, Duke Best keeps changing the rules because he is the worst. Lock her up! Lock her up! Build a wall! Build a wall! When it becomes apparent that Cru might actually beat Bart, for example, a new rule appears that every racer must be sponsored by a company with over 50,000 dollars in annual revenues.
Just when Cru seems licked, however, an eccentric local businessman with a twinkle in his eye played by a slumming Ray Walston decides that actually he hates the corrupt BMX establishment and has a soft spot for Cru despite the arrogant little twerp’s complete dearth of redeeming features.
Rad exists in a world beyond self-awareness, beyond self-parody. It’s a hokey old man’s approximation of youth culture, a movie that panders desperately to the sensibility of a youth market it adorably misunderstands the way adults have always misunderstood youth culture and always will.
Unlike the 2016 Democratic Presidential race, Rad has a happy ending. Cru triumphs, Duke Best is beaten and some dudes in mullets do trick bicycle stunts over the end credits, because, c’mon, that’s what you’re here for, aren’t you? The movie flopped at the box-office and scored the notorious Zero rating on Rotten Tomatoes (home of my column The Zeroes) but has subsequently become a cult movie for reasons I've hopefully delineated here.
Yes, if you turn off your brain, Rad is a lot of fun. In conclusion, Bernie would have won.
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