A gas station attendant who calls himself Poet (Jack Nicholson) is angered by an irate customer while a gang of Hell's Angels led by Buddy (Adam Roarke) drive around causing mischief. Losing his temper with the customer, he gets into a scuffle with his boss, with the result that he loses his job. Later that night, he encounters the bikers again, and one of them breaks the headlamp of his motorcycle - Poet demands compensation, and nearly gets into a fight, but Buddy offers to replace it if he will follow him. Poet agrees, and they all end up at a local bar, where a fracas erupts, and Poet wades in to help...
Written by R. Wright Campbell, Hell's Angels on Wheels was one of the biker movies to appear after the success of The Wild Angels, and it apes the same pattern of brawls, antisocial behaviour and camaraderie between its unshaven cast. The selling point here is that famed Hells Angel Sonny Barger was a technical advisor on this film, and shows up along with several of his cohorts to add an air of authenticity to the proceedings. However, it still comes over as a toned down version of whatever would really happen, and the professional actors in the cast seem ill at ease at sharing the screen with the real life gang members, who presumably didn't put much store by the idle philosophising that arises in the script.
That script holds one maxim to be true: if in doubt, party. And partying here includes drinking, smoking joints, body painting and non explicit sex, along with a fight that can and does erupt at any point. The first altercation sees Nicholson join in, and it's strange to see him portraying a two-fisted tough guy with little of the irony that later performances benefited from - he even sticks one guy's head down the toilet. But such is the life of an unpretentious biker, and they wouldn't have it any other way. After the skirmish dies down, Poet makes friends with Shill (Sabrina Scharf), who turns out to be Buddy's girlfriend, but there is an instant attraction between them.
Poet finds he is not as uninhibited as Shill and her friends, but he shares their anti-establishment attitude, as can be seen when he stands up to a group of sailors who are looking for trouble. He is beaten up, but the Angels take revenge for him, which results in the killing of one of the sailors. This they shrug off, but it only increases the amount of attention paid to them by the police, who are always on their trail. Where The Wild Angels had a funeral as a set piece, this effort has a wedding, and the bikers arrange an impromptu union between a couple from their chapter, all played for laughs. It's at this point where the driving sequences begin to take over, jostling for first place with the frequency of fights and parties.
All good fun until the moral rears its head, which in this case is that Poet has joined a society that is just as strict about its rules as the one he wants to reject. As a leader, Buddy is loyal and fair, but the determinedly carefree existence means not facing up to any responsibilities, and that includes Shill, who Poet wants to take away from all this. He even brings up the cliché (which might not have been so hoary in 1967) about the bikers' "uniform" of denim and leather being no better than a cop's uniform. It's Poet who is the true outsider, and the abrupt ending looks forward to Easy Rider, which some of the same team were involved with, but Hells Angels on Wheels has less of the impact. By placing this framework on the biker phenomenon, the film restricts the opportunities for a vivid look at the culture. Music by Stu Phillips.
Cult American director who never quite made the most of his talents, mainly due to circumstances beyond his control. He spent the 1960s working on exploitation films of increasing stature, some of which have become cult favourites, such as Hells Angels on Wheels, Psych-Out and The Savage Seven, until he gained recognition with counterculture drama Getting Straight. The 1970s followed with one other film, buddy cop comedy Freebie and the Bean, until in 1980 The Stunt Man, which many consider his best work, was released. After that he had just one more credit, for unintentional laugh fest thriller The Color of Night. His fans wish Rush had enjoyed more creative opportunities.