Director Stephen McCallum’s feature debut 1% is an Australian biker crime thriller - a subgenre that's cinematic comfort food to any well-versed exploitation fan. But the mere act of dragging such an Ozploitation staple into the modern age changes the context and tenor of what we’re seeing, and McCallum’s tale of loyalty and betrayal in the outlaw ranks - one that would have provided disreputable vicarious thrills on a 1970s drive-in screen - here takes on the somber air of a Shakespearean tragedy.
The film throws us into the moment that sets the course for all its characters: a junkie member of the Copperheads biker gang has been caught stealing drugs from rival gang the Devils, and the Devils come to the junkie’s brother Paddo (Ryan Corr) to demand justice. Paddo hastily agrees to a financial deal to let the Devils launder the Copperheads’ money. It’s not a bad deal, but there’s just one problem: Paddo isn’t the president of the Copperheads. That’s Knuck (Matt Nable, also the film’s writer), who’s just been released from prison and isn’t too happy with the way his protege Paddo has been expanding the gang’s business in his absence.
The old guard vs. the new is presented humorously at first - Knuck is not too keen to see Paddo has been putting the Copperheads’ logo on hoodies for sale, and hiring accountants to handle the books for the club’s various businesses. Paddo wants to look ahead and position the club as profitable business than can evolve past its tribal origins, working with other organizations and making everyone money. But Knuck can only look backward - at an isolationist, combative, faded former glory. On top of that, Paddo and Knuck both have their own Lady MacBeths (Abbey Lee and Simone Kessell, respectively) in their ears, and as each man pushes back against the other, things turn deadly serious in short order.
McCallum and Nable create a lived-in world that make this somewhat familiar tale feel immediate and real. The entire cast never feels anything less than authentic, but Nable’s Knuck is an especially terrifying antagonist - he emerges from prison poisioned to the core (liek his world and its value systems) by his own macho bullshit. As his defiant surrogate son torn between loyalty and his own instincts, Corr carries the film’s emotional arc. Lee and Kessell each explore (and transcend) the “biker chick” stereotype, building something much deeper and smarter.
Some of this territory might feel well covered in something like Sons of Anarchy, and in fact it might occur to viewers that these characters could play just as well in a similar long-form series. But part of what makes 1% so compelling is its cinematic lineage, and its place in that lineage. Stone introduced the outlaw Aussie biker flick to the world 43 years ago. Though 1% plays in that space, the gap is akin to Adam West and Chris Nolan, and viewing it in that context provides a satisfying cinematic frisson. With 1% the Ozploitation biker flick has grown up mean, offering a grisly update of a rich cinematic subculture.