Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man: A Hidden Gem Worth Watching

In the year 1996—a vision of the future—a biker named Harley Davidson (Mickey Rourke) and his cowboy friend Marlboro Man (Don Johnson) team up to save their favorite bar from closing down. Their plan involves a heist, but instead of cash, they end up with a massive stash of a new street drug called “Crystal Dream.”

The Players:

The film stars Mickey Rourke, Don Johnson, Chelsea Field, Giancarlo Esposito, Tom Sizemore, and Daniel Baldwin, and is directed by Simon Wincer.

“I was fortunate enough to work on a film with Don. The only bad part was the director sucked, but Don knew so much about behind-the-camera stuff. He used to tell the director where to put the camera. It would be my pleasure to let anyone know Don Johnson is a very great actor and has been underrated for many years. I mean, the guy is so good-looking, all he has to do is blink, and you can’t take your eyes off him.” - Mickey Rourke’s Instagram

The History:

In 1991, both Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson were in transitional phases in their careers. Rourke had recently starred in several poorly received films, including "Wild Orchid" and "Desperate Hours," while Johnson was struggling to establish himself as a leading man after the end of "Miami Vice." The two actors signed on to this high-profile, big-budget action film, which seemed like a surefire box office hit during the heyday of R-rated action movies.

However, the movie was universally panned by critics, who mocked the blatant product placement in the title. The characters being named after a motorcycle and a cigarette brand did not help, nor did the public criticisms from Rourke and Johnson before the film's release. Ultimately, "Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man" grossed only $7.4 million domestically, a significant disappointment.

Why It’s Great:

"Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man" has gained a cult following, partly due to the later resurgence in popularity of its leading men. At the time, Rourke was seen as difficult and squandered his talent, eventually leaving Hollywood to pursue boxing before making a comeback with "The Wrestler." In hindsight, many of his late-eighties films have aged well, suggesting critics may have been too harsh. Similarly, Don Johnson was trying to transition from television to film, a difficult feat at the time. Despite this, he delivered notable performances in films like "Dead Bang" and "The Hot Spot."

Fast forward to 2019, and both stars are considered icons. Rourke's reputation has been somewhat tarnished by a series of direct-to-video movies, but "The Wrestler" reaffirmed his acting prowess. Johnson, on the other hand, has successfully reinvented himself with roles in "Cold in July," "Brawl in Cell Block 99," "Alex of Venice," "Knives Out," and HBO's "Watchmen." With their careers revitalized, now is an excellent time to revisit "Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man."

While not a great film, it serves as a nostalgic, entertaining piece from the nineties. The film establishes its tone early on, with Rourke's character thwarting a convenience store robbery to save a young cashier (Kelly Hu), reminiscent of an old Roger Corman B-movie. The film even foreshadows the "Fast & Furious" franchise with its focus on a close-knit group of outlaws and their prized vehicles, in this case, motorcycles.

Rourke plays Harley Davidson as a tough guy with a broken heart who hilariously struggles with firearms. Johnson’s Marlboro Man is a swaggering, denim-clad cowboy who could have easily led a series of films if this one had been more successful. The film's villains, portrayed by Tom Sizemore and Daniel Baldwin, lack the necessary menace to be truly effective adversaries, but the supporting cast, including a young Giancarlo Esposito and Vanessa Williams, adds charm. Additionally, Basil Poledouris' score and the use of Bon Jovi's "Wanted: Dead or Alive" are highlights.

Best Scenes:

Johnson's portrayal of Marlboro Man is a standout, especially in a scene where he lays out his life philosophy while dominating at pool—a nod to his impressive skills showcased in "Miami Vice." One of the film's most memorable scenes involves an iconic moment from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," relocated to the roof of a Las Vegas hotel.