Beginning as an explication of the militant anti-corporate bike protests that have taken root in American cities in the past decade, "B.I.K.E." appears at first to be a typical if stylishly directed leftist rant against big oil and consumer conformity. But gradually, the film reveals a radical subculture within a radical subculture: the tallbike gangs of New York, who ride double frame bicycles of about six feet in height, and engage in punk rights of heraldry, ritualistically jousting each other on the night-shrouded streets of the city. Heads break, necks crack, drugs are consumed in mass quantities, and the inherent contradictions of radical individualists attempting to maintain a group identity implode, reform and implode yet again, in an absolutely fascinating tour of a modern netherworld.
To document this subculture, the filmmakers had to become a part of it. Co-director Howard goes completely native and builds his life around attempts to join the New York chapter of the Black Label Bicycle Club, widely accepted as kings of the movement thanks to member and "world champion" tallbike combatant Doyle. Howard's own life spins out of control over the course of the shoot. His junkie girlfriend deserts him, sending him deeper into his own addictions, and his quest to join Black Label obtains obsessive, self-destructive dimensions.
"B.I.K.E." offsets Howard's harrowing downward spiral against the more calculating Doyle, who emerges as a covert careerist, able to talk about maintaining authenticity while using his celebrity status to assemble his own cult of personality (there's even Doyle merch, including a Doyle rag doll, replete with trademark Ahab whiskers). It's an effective plot device, though it makes a viewer a bit uneasy that Howard, as one of the filmmakers, is also one of the people making the argument that ultimately presents his own messed-up way of life as the more authentic. But "B.I.K.E." doesn't sentimentalize Howard's kamikaze existence; if he symbolizes anything, it's the lost, fumbling, empty quest for values that manifests itself in radical movements like tallbike combat -- the "Fight Club" mentality that it's better to wind up broken and bruised than it is to feel nothing at all.
Like Doyle, "B.I.K.E." is also smart and careerist enough to combine elements of nearly every successful documentary of recent years except "March of the Penguins," ultimately mutating into yet another variation on "Spellbound" by arranging its climax around a major jousting event. Here Tony, who was never admitted into Black Label, introduces his "Happy Fuck Clown Club," a covert tallbike claque of his own which proceeds to dominate the competition, and Doyle reveals his own secret project, a jet-propelled tallbike that is as far from the movement's roots as a rejection of the combustion engine as it could possibly be. It's a somewhat shambolic ending, perhaps because Doyle (who likely assumed his new invention would dominate the evening before Tony's crew showed up) is intelligent enough to realize he's in the process of being had, and he evades the one-on-one combat to the death between himself and Howard that would have been the film's logical climax.
Reaching for a mainstream device to end such a radical journey is a rare misstep though, and it's perhaps fitting that a film with such a dark and troubling but liberated viewpoint ends in ellipsis rather than a period. Directed by Jacob Septimus and Anthony Howard. Produced by Frederic King. No distributor set. Documentary. Not yet rated. Running time: 89 min