Motorcycles are part of a hobby that has crossed borders that are not political. Often, you can watch a movie and note that the lead character might ride a motorcycle, or know someone that does, and it’s usually cued in as a rebellious character trait or a hobby that they too enjoy. In fact, so many actors enjoy the use of a motorcycle on their own time, or as part of a plot device, that many have contracts stating that they cannot ride bikes when not on set!
While the past year may have seen a lot of movies either delay their releases, release on a different medium, or be shuffled into oblivion in a couple of cases, there is a whole slew of movies, both past and present, where motorcycles are involved. We’re going to stretch the definition of contemporary a little here, as there are some movies that had bikes so important in them that a few are what could be considered legends in their own right.
However, apart from the two movies we’re stretching the definition for, all the rest have been in theaters in the past 20-odd years, and we’ve tried to make the list as modern as possible!
Legendary Motorcycle: Kaneda’s Bike, “Akira” (1988)
In 1988, North America was still unfamiliar with what would eventually become known as “anime.” There had been some underground attempts at popularizing the artform, which is more than just “Japanese cartoons,” but only the most diehard of fans truly knew what it was all about. The fact of the matter is that at the time, most people saw cartoons as for kids, and did not realize that often, the Japanese put mature themes and stories into their animations.
Akira was one of these animations. Based on a manga (Japanese comic book) from 1982, it was revolutionary for a number of reasons. It dealt with extremely dark themes of transhumanism and racial struggles, as well as defining what was truly worth living and dying for in a world gone mad. It dealt with how humanity had survived after a thermonuclear war and how Tokyo, now Neo-Tokyo, had fallen from grace and was now overrun with gangs, including biker gangs (in Japan, they are called bōsōzoku, which translates to “Out-of-control tribe”). It has also been hailed as the best cyberpunk movie to come from the 1980s, the decade that defined what cyberpunk truly was.
Yet one thing stood out to all cultures, all viewers, either in Japan in 1988 or worldwide in 1989… Kaneda’s motorcycle was awesome. A low-slung supersport, with a reclined, aerodynamic riding position, articulated suspension, and painted red, looking like a cruise missile on the road. While the bike only truly features in maybe 10 to 15 minutes of the film, it was long enough that it has become a pop-culture legend of its own. And that deserves recognition, as many movie studios worldwide saw that a bike could become a character in its own way, and leverage that even to this day.
The other massively influential pop-culture icon bike came from a live action movie that just a few people saw. Not many. You know, that little movie with a small budget about a fighter pilot named Maverick who flies F-14’s and is a qualified Top Gun pilot? Don’t know if anyone else has seen the movie, but it was a decent flick!
Being serious for a moment, Top Gun was one of those movies that earned its place in pop-culture as an over the top, crazy, fun ride that did not require much brain power to enjoy. In modern times, we call these “popcorn movies” as you quite literally sit down, turn the brain to low, and munch away on a bag of popcorn while enjoying the film.
But we, the motorcycle faithful, all know the scene. Maverick being sent to Top Gun, riding his Kawasaki GPz900R down the road beside the runway, “Highway To The Danger Zone” rocking over the scene as an F-14 Tomcat takes off, Maverick waving his fist in the air before tucking down and accelerating. And just like that, a rock song and Tom Cruise’s rising star power made an instant classic of Kawasaki’s first real supersport for North America. Need we say any more?
Honda CRF250R, “SkyFall” (2012)
We all expect James Bond 007 movies to have strong opening action sequences to get our attention, but 2012’s Skyfall was in an entirely different league. Riding what looks to be an incredibly well used Honda CRF250R, Agent 007 rides through the streets and across the rooftops of Istanbul, chasing down the bad guy at breakneck speed to get “the list.”
The bike definitely lends itself to rough use, being a modern classic of Honda’s CRF line of dirt and dual sport bikes. With a featherweight 230 lbs, a gutsy single cylinder, and Showa shocks front and rear, the bike was, incredibly, not overly modified for the film. There were a few scenes, such as the bike flip at the end of the chase, that required some stunt bikes (motorcycles that have been heavily modified to be one-use bikes and are often meant to explode or break apart spectacularly), but the large part of the chase was ridden on mostly factory stock bikes by stuntmen and, for a few scenes, Daniel Craig himself.
While many bikes from many James Bond movies could have made it here, it’s the pace and action of SkyFall’s opening that gets the heart beating in the first five minutes of the film. It’s not your standard bike-on-road chase, it’s dynamic, multi-level, and shows just what a professional stunt rider on a mostly factory stock bike can really do.
BMW R nineT Scrambler, “Mission Impossible: Fallout” (2018)
While many actors have to sign off on riding motorcycles in their contracts, there is an advantage to being the producer of your own movies. Tom Cruise can ride what he wants, when he wants, as controlling owner of United Artists. That said, he does have quite the collection, including a super-rare, customized Vyrus motorcycle.
However, in almost all the Mission Impossible movies, you will find Agent Ethan Hunt astride some form of two wheeled speedster. For Fallout, it was the then new BMW R nineT Scrambler, which was ridden through a pretty exciting chase scene that included riding around l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris the wrong way.
While it was a short part of the movie, the boxer-engined R nineT Scrambler was used in all but the most dangerous of stunts, with Tom Cruise himself performing many of the stunts. That said, it was one of several bikes used in the movie, with others being a Triumph Speed Triple, BMW R1250GT Police Editions, a BMW S1000RR, and many more.
Kawasaki ZZ-R250, “Kill Bill Volume 1” (2003)
When one thinks of a movie where a motorcycle is an integral part of the storyline, it’s surprising that Kill Bill Volume 1 is not mentioned all that often. Yet, in the movie, Uma Thurman’s The Bride character travels to Tokyo, chasing down the man and associates of his that tried to kill her. After arriving in Japan, she is seen riding a yellow Kawasaki ZZ-R250 through the streets, following a Nissan 300ZX that holds one of those said associates.
The bike appears for barely 40 seconds of film, but the yellow riding suit would become iconic in the Crazy 88’s Yakuza showdown scene, where The Bride dispatches about 88 Yakuza before being able to fight the woman she came to Tokyo to kill. This scene cemented itself into movie history with the sheer amount of Quentin Tarantino’s stylistic death shown throughout. It’s comical to an extent, and the yellow suit with black race stripes literally becomes part of the whole stylization of the scene.
2012 Harley-Davidson Softail Slim (original and modified), “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014)
To say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a bit of an effect on superhero movies would be a bit of an understatement. As such, during the first Captain America movie, Marvel asked if they could use replica bikes that looked like 1942 H-D WLA Liberators. Harley-Davidson said “sure, go ahead.” What resulted is Captain America, Steve Rogers, riding throughout the movie on a bike that looked like the classic Harley model.
When it came time for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Harley-Davidson not only signed off on using a modern bike in the movie, they provided them to the set directly. The 2012 Harley-Davidson Softail Slim turned out to be the perfect bike, as it reminisced about the WLA Liberator, while also giving good ol’ Cap a modern bike to ride.
While a modified version of the bike does unfortunately end up crashed and destroyed during a fight with Hydra forces near the middle of the movie, it did its job well. It was even praised by actor Chris Evans, who holds a motorcycle license and did all the non-stunt riding in the film himself, as being a comfortable and easy-to-ride model that he wished he had more time with. When Cap says your bike is good, we think you’ve done a decently good job with the bike.
Gas-Gas TXT250 and Yamaha YZF250F, “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)
Mad Max: Fury Road, despite being only 6 years old as of this writing, is still considered one of the best vehicle based films of all time. Following on from the first series of Mad Max films in the 1980s and 1990s, Fury Road showed us how George Miller, despite the huge time gap between the films, still knows how to make an action movie with heart.
Put simply, the protagonists are trying to escape from the primary antagonist by driving a huge fuel tanker across the Australian outback after nuclear war has devastated the Earth. As the tanker enters a series of canyons they must traverse, a gang of bikers quite literally rain hell upon them.
What is astonishing about the stunts and action of Fury Road is that all of the bike stunts were done practically. This means that those bikes jumping over the rig from canyon wall to canyon wall were actually doing the jumps. Using a combination of Gas-Gas TXT250 trial bikes and Yamaha YZF250F trail bikes, done up in Mad Max levels of “slapped together from nuts and bolts,” the full scene itself is heart-pounding, and you have to feel for the stunt performers that performed some of the more spectacular mid-air bail-outs and landed in appropriately painful looking manners. There was some minor wire work done near the end of the scene, and of course mannequins were used for actual contact with the rig right at the end. However, this is why stunt professionals are highly regarded and respected in Hollywood, they know how to take a fall from height and not get injured!
Yamaha MT-09, “John Wick 3: Parabellum” (2019)
For those that are unaware, Keanu Reeves is an avid motorcyclist. So much so, when he’s not on a movie project, he’s being the face, the promoter, and the test rider for his own company, ARCH Motorcycles, which he started with his friend Gard Hollinger.
The entire fight took about a month to perform and get right, as there were four different scenes shot four different ways for the visual effects team to splice together to make it movie magic. The long shots of the bikes entering the bridge and forming up behind John Wick were done practically, and some of the end scenes were also shot on location. The rest of the fight was done on green screen, with the bikes mounted on special rigs that allowed them to lean realistically, as well as let Keanu punch, slap, shoot, throw swords, and the like without actually putting him in danger.