The Angels first take note of "Poet" (Jack Nicholson) after one of them inadvertently damages his motorcycle and breaks its headlight. Poet, with far more guts than brains, challenges the Angel that hit his motorcycle. This is an act that would traditionally result in every Angel present participating in a group beating of the attacker. "When a non-Angel hits an Angel, all Angels retaliate." But the leader of the Angels, Buddy (Adam Roarke), intervenes and tells Poet that the Angels will replace the headlight. In the meantime, he's welcome to ride with them while they take care of business—which turns out to be going to a bar and beating up the members of another club who previously beat an Angel.
Poet is told to wait outside, but ends up helping the Angels. Later that night, the Angels return the favor by hunting down and beating four sailors who beat Poet four-against-one after he parted company with the group. Poet accidentally bumps into one of the sailors and speaks rudely to him before he realizes that the sailor has three other sailors with him. The four sailors then refuse to accept his apology—but the Angels only know that four sailors beat up Poet, and he doesn't tell them how the earlier fight started. One of the sailors pulls a knife on the Angels and is then killed accidentally in the fight that follows.
Poet is allowed to ride with the Angels and is eventually elevated to "prospect" status. He is attracted to Buddy's some-time girlfriend (Sabrina Scharf) who toys with him while remaining hopelessly committed to Buddy.
Much of the story that follows consists of scenes of the Angels partying or being provoked to violence by "squares." Although the Angels are shown as being loud and generally irreverent, they are never shown starting trouble except when taking revenge on members of other motorcycle clubs, except when they run an older man in a car off the road, to his death; when they run two cops off the road when freeing their friend, arrested for that death; or when they insist on entering a bar where they are not welcome, thereby instigating a fight with locals.
Eventually, Buddy's girlfriend succeeds in provoking a confrontation between Buddy and Poet, with only one of the men surviving.
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