In the opening moment of “Outlaws” (scored to the Doom-tinged sound of the song “Lunacy” from the ambient-Rock group Swans), a leather-clad motorcycle gang cuts through the night streets like riders of an oncoming Apocalypse. It is a moment that immediately grabs and foreshadows the aura of the film.
Director Stephen McCallum immediately assures us that his first feature film, while not entirely heavy on plot, is something more than a low budget rip-off of “Sons of Anarchy,” even if the comparison is inevitable.
Originally titled “One Percent,” McCallum’s film is a tale of power; the struggle to keep it and the quest to prove who earns the right to wield it.
Ryan Corr’s Mark is the VP of the Copperheads, an outlaw motorcycle gang. Mark has been keeping things moving since the gang’s president Knuck (Matt Noble, doing double-duty as screenwriter of “Outlaws”) has been in prison.
Since his superior has been locked up, Mark has concentrated on keeping the membership together and the money flowing. When Knuck is released, his goal is to bring life in the Copperheads, the way it used to be: through rule by way of violence and brutality. To stay king in this world, one must be a warrior and Knuck intends to prove it.
Mark’s mentally unstable brother Skink (Josh McConville) runs afoul of a rival gang which forces Mark to reach a deal and cut the gang in thirty percent.
When Knuck is released it is against this unholy alliance that he must measure his mettle.
Ryan Corr is particularly striking as Mark and gives the film soul. The actor captures a man with the weight of fate and impending disaster on his shoulders in every moment. A rebellion (of sorts) is coming of which Mark is the reluctant leader.
Matt Noble is pure fury and domination as Knuck, a violent warrior spirit who demands his subjects follow suit. The character is a tortured soul, as his secret is eating away at his manhood and his marriage. Noble brings a powerful presence to the screen.
While Mark’s noble hero is cliched (but well finished) and Knuck’s dangerous quest to stay king while harboring a secret that could destroy everything is explored convincingly, it is the two main women who garner the most interest.
Mark’s girlfriend, Katrina (Abbey Lee) and Knuck’s wife, Hayley (Simone Kessell), in their own ways, are the true backbone of both the gang and the film.
Lee’s Katrina is worried that she and Mark will never find a life beyond the motorcycle gang. Violence and death shade their only options. The actress makes smart choices and navigates the emotional beats of her character, making Katrina deeper and quite effective.
Hayley, the Lady Macbeth of the piece, is cunning and dedicated to her man remaining king, the character a catalyst for much of what happens.
Kessell is exceptionally good at portraying a woman firmly fighting to hold onto the only life she knows even though her husband Knuck is a flawed leader who is more a facade of what he once was and still claims to be. The actress’s performance is fierce and demanding with an inner sadness born of what her husband is becoming. Kessel’s performance is a smart one and carries a good deal of emotional weight.
Shelly Farthing-Dawe’s cinematography echoes some of the great Gordon Willis’s stylistic choices.
Farthing-Dawe’s use of darkness represents the universe of the Copperheads as their gang is being torn apart by treachery and ego.
The fact that this is a biker film that avoids falling back on heavy action moments makes it unique. Usually, biker gang films thrive solely on elaborately-designed sequences of gun play and motorcycle stunts.
While there is a nail-biting shootout towards the finale, McCallum and Noble make their film about their characters and their predicaments.
This is not a Shakespearean take of “Sons of Anarchy” (which was Shakespearean in its own right) nor is this film comparable to the darkly ironic vibe of George A. Romero’s undervalued biker film “Knightriders.”
McCallum’s film is sweat and macho posturing that is lifted from the playbook of John Milius and Walter Hill. Here outsiders have no place. For these characters, life is signified by roaring Harleys, black leather and general badassness.
“Outlaws” is a well-crafted film that kept me going through compelling visuals, a tight script and some remarkable performances.