Total Recall

Total Recall: Bicycle Movies

With Premium Rush hitting theaters this week, we run down some noteworthy films featuring pedal-powered protagonists.

by | August 23, 2012 | Comments



Like the Pink Floyd song says, “I’ve got a bike/You can ride it if you like.” With Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who was the subject of his
very own Total Recall
recently) pedaling like crazy for this weekend’s Premium Rush, we decided now would be the perfect time to peer into the cinematic past and find some other pedal-powered films. It’s probably no surprise that bicycles aren’t exactly the greatest source of screenwriting inspiration, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been a few noteworthy entries in the genre — and besides, it’s hard to complain when a list gives us the opportunity to write about Rad. Grab your helmet — it’s time for Total Recall!

American Flyers

Six years after penning Breaking Away, screenwriter Steve Tesich returned to cinematic bicycling — albeit with a slightly more action-centric bent — with American Flyers. Directed by John Badham (then riding a WarGames-fueled hot streak) and starring Kevin Costner in one of his earliest major roles, Flyers traces the turmoil surrounding a pair of brothers (played by Costner and David Marshall Grant) as they begin training for a race across the Rockies under the shadow of potentially life-threatening illness. Though it didn’t do much at the box office and most reviews were rather lukewarm, Flyers resonated with critics like’s Fred Topel, who called it a “classic ’80s sports movie” and lauded its “surprising twist, and thrilling bike scenes.”

Bicycle Thieves


Long before Pee-Wee Herman dashed off across the country on a madcap search for his stolen bike, Vittorio De Seca used the theft of a bicycle to help tell a far more dramatic tale. Considered a classic of Italian neorealist cinema — not to mention one of the best all-around films of all time — 1948’s Bicycle Thieves follows the grim struggles of a desperate family man (Lamberto Maggiorani) whose efforts to provide for his wife and children are dealt a severe blow when the bicycle he needs for work is stolen. As it wends its way to its brave, thoughtful conclusion, argues Kenneth Turan of the Los
Angeles Times, Thieves “manages to appeal to the better angels of our nature in a way that only deepens as we grow older along with the film.”

Beijing Bicycle


Adapting the loose framework of The Bicycle Thief for a story about modern Communist China, Beijing Bicycle follows a rural Chinese teen (Cui Lin) on his journey to the city in search of work. It’s a journey that becomes complicated when his bike is stolen, prompting a difficult search, some turnabout thievery, and the potentially violent complications that ensue. Part of a series of films from young Chinese directors highlighting the social issues affecting modern citizens, Beijing Bicycle gave viewers what Peter Howell of the Toronto Star described as “a picturesque morality tale that slyly depicts the hopelessness of communism while pointing up the essential similarities between people of all classes.”

BMX Bandits


The poster promised “a high flying ride to adventure,” and while this family-friendly Australian action flick from director Brian Trenchard-Smith might not quite achieve flight, it manages to add a fun twist to the old kids-sticking-it-to-the-Man formula — and it also boasts a (very) early screen appearance by Nicole Kidman, who stars here as one of a gang of young bikers who steal a box of walkie talkies without realizing they belong to a crew of bank robbers. Hijinks ensue, of course, including an extended chase that serves as a tourist brochure for various Sydney landmarks; it all adds up to an enduring cult classic that’s earned the admiration of critics like Brian Orndorf, who applauded, “Just hand Trenchard-Smith explosives, an anamorphic lens, and a game cast, and he’ll whip up something appealing, preferably with a saucy Aussie wink.”

Breaking Away


A sensitive evocation of small-town life, the awkward restlessness of life after high school, and class struggle — not to mention a darn good biking movie — Breaking Away offered a solid early career break for stars Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley while racking up $20 million at the box office and earning a slew of awards (including the Golden Globe for Best Film and the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) along the way. Starring Christopher as a bicycle racing-obsessed Indiana teen (patterned after real-life rider Dave Blase) whose working-class roots put him and his blue-collar friends at odds with the wealthy college kids in town, Breaking culminated in a rousing dramatization of Indiana University’s venerable Little 500 race. The action proved memorable, but for most critics, the movie’s true value lay in what Richard Schickel called the film’s “many moments of shrewd insight into the lives of amusingly shaded but very recognizable human beings.”


Key Exchange


Bike racing collides with mid-1980s sexual mores in Key Exchange, a little-remembered 1985 rom-com about a TV producer (Brooke Adams) who’s struggling to cope with her jealous boyfriend’s (Ben Masters) strikingly selfish commitment issues while finding herself drawn to his racing partner and best friend (Daniel Stern). It’s a familiar plotline — and indeed, some critics felt it was an Exchange where the audience handed over its time and got nothing in return — but for Vincent Canby of the New York Times, “What sustains Key Exchange is not surprise, but the intelligence of its characters and of the people who made it.”

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure


The movie that taught a generation of young filmgoers that the Alamo has no basement, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure frames one of the most absurd road trip adventures of the 1980s inside the simple tale of one strange man-child’s all-encompassing love for his bicycle. Featuring two-wheeled larceny, biker gangs, Twisted Sister, ninjas, assorted Hollywood studio lot mayhem, and one sweet red ride, Adventure took the training wheels off director Tim Burton’s career, broadened Pee-Wee’s burgeoning pop culture cachet, and delighted critics like Beth Accomando of KPBS, who marveled, “The filmmakers create a zany and surreal world for Pee-wee yet it all seems perfectly natural and credible. Plus, it’s all infused with a subdued yet rampant silliness that’s enchanting.”



Featuring Kevin Bacon, breakdancing, and a soundtrack stuffed with big 1980s artists like Ray Parker Jr., John Parr, and Tony Banks of Genesis, 1986’s Quicksilver must have looked like a sure thing on paper. Alas, critics and filmgoers weren’t along for the ride with this allegedly dramatic tale of a stock trader (Bacon) who quits the business and becomes a bike messenger after suffering financial ruin, and in later years, Bacon himself reportedly referred to it as the lowest point in his career. “As long as the characters are doing stunts or whizzing impossibly through city traffic to a strong rock beat, there’s something to watch,” conceded Walter Goodman of the New York Times. “For the rest of the time, Quicksilver is as much fun as a slow leak.”



Smokey and the Bandit director Hal Needham hit a rough patch in the ’80s, releasing a string of flops that started with 1982’s Megaforce and continued through 1987’s alleged pro wrestling comedy Body Slam. Along the way, he helmed Rad, a BMX-focused teen movie starring Bill Allen as a smalltown kid, Lori Loughlin as his equally bike-obsessed love interest, and the villainous Jack Weston as the meanie who wants to keep Allen out of the big Helltrack race. Despite the added presence of Ray Walston as a kindly old man and Olympic champ Bart Conner as Allen’s Zabka-esque Helltrack rival, Rad bit the dust during its theatrical run, grossing a little over $2 million and suffering the withering scorn of critics like HeraldNet’s Robert Horton, who scoffed, “Any film calling itself Rad had best be taken with a grain of salt, regardless of its subject matter. As it happens, the subject matter of Rad constitutes probably the dorkiest storyline we’ve seen this year.”

The Triplets of Belleville


When a young man’s dreams of racing in the Tour de France are derailed by a mobster who wants to use his skills for nefarious purposes, his grandmother rides to the rescue in The Triplets of Belleville, writer/director Sylvain Chomet’s beautifully animated ode to classic French cinema, 1920s jazz, and the inestimable strength of family love. A two-time Oscar nominee and solid indie hit, Triplets earned almost universal critical acclaim from writers like Rick Groen from the Globe and Mail, who observed, “In an era when live-action movies often play like cartoons, this is an animated film that feels all grown up.”

Take a look through Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s best-reviewed movies, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Premium Rush.


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