The Rebel Rousers a few times feels like it could be aiming for something more on its lunch-money used for a budget. It’s got a very simple crux to the story- Bruce Dern and Cameron Mitchell as old school friends (hey, they may be oh two decades apart, but it was college I guess) say hello and go their separate ways at the start of the film, the former being a biker club leader and the latter a soon-to-be father of a possibly illegitimate child by Diane Ladd’s character. Then, some of the bikers one day find the two in a car, take them down to a beach, and beat the crap out of him for just, well, being there. He slugs off to get help while the other bikers race to see who’ll get their ‘time’ with her, with Jack Nicholson’s Bunny (ho-ho) vies for the prize.
This crux is given some actors who actually say very basic lines of dialog with some conviction and faith in the material, but not much. Some of the acting, or at least casting, is a little strange though. Nicholson is given the top billing on most VHS releases of the film, but his is a supporting role that is like RP McMurphy from Cuckoo’s nest with his wonderful sarcasm replaced by striped pants (which the director decides to use to block some shots). There’s also the versatile Harry Dean Stanton among the pack, with possibly the most ridiculous get-up in his whole career. It all leads up to a climax that includes a fight, but also a letdown in not having the bikers square off against the Mexicans who show up with their pitchforks on the beach after finally being alerted.
All of this is up for good times in the B-movie guilty pleasure sense by the sound of it, and everything that can be made as ‘surface’ as possible is used for dramatic or just ‘there’ effect; Mitchell and Ladd’s characters have not much else to say except the baby and marriage; the bikers, aside from Dern and possibly Nicholson (who when he does have a line or something to do is very funny), are hard to discern with any distinguishing characteristics; the police are (amusingly) very limited to a Deputy who’s never around and a lummox with bricks for brains. There’s even a very good scene where Mitchell gets no response from a bar full of patrons even in his beat-up, bloodied state. But the problem with all of the expended effort put into The Rebel Rousers is that it’s too amateurish to be taken at all seriously as a fun time, if that makes sense.
Producer/writer/director Martin B. Cohen seems to understand point and shoot (and the previously mentioned stripe-pants blocking shots), and not much else. There is also the issue of lighting, to which it looks like the filmmakers didn’t have enough money for or just didn’t give a crap about- the climax is a letdown mostly for how you can’t see a damn thing that’s going on. It’s ironic to think that Laslo Kovacs went from Easy Rider to this (or vice versa). His music choices are mostly awful, at least a few supporting actors brought on look like they’re improvising on the set (and not for the better of the actual script), and any real guilty fun (ala Angels Hard as They Come) of seeing a bunch of bikers being really mean and ruthless is compounded by the Mitchell/Ladd moments which are un-evenly paced.
But even with all of this, as a pre-Easy Rider kind of spectacle (shot before it but not released till after it came out, a shelved movie for three years), it’s not bad to look at as a curio piece for some of its main players. For fans of the actors who got their feet wet in these kinds of pictures it’s of a little interest to see Dern as the unlikely protagonist and Nicholson as the grizzly heel, or Stanton in his sometimes whacked out state. That it leaves no real lasting impression is no surprise though, aside from being a mixed bag.