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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Riders’ Storms With a Wild, Comic Intensity

“Riders of the Storm” (selected theaters) is a surprise: a little ragged blast of a science-fiction film that packs more energy and ideas in its shots than many pictures twice its size. It won’t be to everyone’s taste; some will find it either crude, misogynistic or tasteless. There are lots of script problems and stereotypes; some of this movie is quite bad. But the best of it has an almost raving, full-throttle comic intensity, like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch suddenly taken over by genuine maniacs.

It’s one of those overheated, hyper-intense films--crazy, tasteless, but daring--that almost seems to be blowing apart at the seams: political satire-fantasy with an edge. In the movie, Dennis Hopper and a Strangelove-ian planeload of counter-culture Vietnam veterans run the ultimate outlaw TV station from a bomber in the sky. Their name is S & M TV, their logo is a goony cartoon eagle with a bomb in its talons, and their programming philosophy seems derived from MTV, Wolfman Jack, New York’s Ugly George and Abbie Hoffman. They bombard the airwaves with rock ‘n’ roll videos and terrorize evangelical broadcasts and news programs with unannounced incursions of sex and violence.

If the whole idea sounds like a ‘60s daydream, that’s the way it plays. The bomber crew--which includes Michael J. Pollard as its electronics wizard--are multi-racial Viet-vet outlaw hippies, and the video clips in their barrage are often on the war or ‘60s rockers like Jimi Hendrix and the Kinks. (Would they affect any modern audience, beyond nostalgia?)

Scott Roberts’ script shoots at obvious targets: TV religion, the military-industrial complex and a ultra-right presidential candidate who looks like a mixture of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Margaret Thatcher and Mrs. Bates. It’s a brave scenario, but an obvious one, and not too funny or surprising. But the handling makes it work. The director, Maurice Phillips, loves bravura camerawork and weird backgrounds. He keeps loading up his hyper-active frames with wild and wooly acting and extravagantly satiric decor.

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Phillips has the movie on overload from the first shots--when his camera tracks through a bomber-hold that seems to blend “Dark Star’s” spaceship, “Das Boot’s” submarine, and a psychedelic hootchy-kootch parlor. Later on, he uses the plane’s multiple video screens with great inventiveness, wittily multiplying the reference points in his shots. Phillips keeps the movie visually alive even when the story veers into crass cliche.

As the captain, Dennis Hopper wears T-shirts that read, “I wish I were deep, instead of just macho,” and occasionally flips a George Washington wig on his head. He gives this monomaniac role a chilled-to-the-bone quality. In some ways, it’s vintage Hopper, because, through the grotesquerie, one senses part of his spirit: vaguely anarchic, intense, sourly amused--idealism after 10 tequilas. Hopper and Phillips give “Riders on the Storm” (MPPA-rated R, for sex and language) something extra: a song for aging children that keens, pops, burbles and wails.


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