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Movie Review: ROADRACERS – Director Robert Rodriguez's Lost Second Film


With the exception of his kid-friendly ventures (the Spy Kids franchise, that Sharkboy and Lava Girl thing), director Robert Rodriguez has carved out a successful niche making the same movie over and over again.  Beginning with his independent triumph El Mariachi and running through 2010’s Machete, Rodriguez has specialized in violent, hyperstylized stories about The Loner, a rebel who haunts society’s fringes, living by his own non-traditional moral code. This is not an insult – the great Howard Hawks loved to repeat himself, with his Rio Bravo/El Dorado/Rio Lobo trilogy the most obvious example – and the delights come in watching Rodriguez hone his tale from El Mariachi to From Dusk Till Dawn to Sin City to Planet Terror.

One would not be in error to label El Mariachi this archetype’s purest expression– it is certainly the most stripped-down version in the Rodriguez canon – but its follow-up, the Showtime original movie Roadracers, provides an more telling look into the origins of Rodriguez’s cinematic obsessions.  His movies always feel slightly unstuck-in-time (the closest we get to vérité realism is in the Day-Glo pop frenzy of Once Upon a Time in Mexico), and that’s because he’s not doing modern-day rebellion: as Roadracers makes obvious, he’s tipping his hat to ‘50s Loners like Marlon Brando and Ricky Nelson and Michael Landon.  That fact isn’t surprising with regard to Roadracers since Showtime commissioned him to make something in the style of so many 1950’s teen melodramas (here, we get David Arquette’s Angry Greaser making out with on-screen love interest Salma Hayek and enraging William Sadler and Jason Wiles’ father-son psycho pairing).  What is surprising is how well the concept stuck; we’re almost twenty years later, and Rodriguez still hasn’t shaken it.

Make no mistake about it: Roadracers never feels American Graffiti-authentic.  The language is too rough; the acting is too florid; you’d never confuse this one as period-friendly.  But that’s the fun: Rodriguez takes the skeleton of an old story and fills it out with contemporary elements.  It means you get a virtuoso chase sequence on roller-skates where Dude uses his hair grease to slip up the bad guys.  It means a girl’s hair burning off provides the lunatic spark that sets the plot in-motion.  It means you get three near-brilliant monologues: one with genre mainstay Sadler delivering a loving ode to the pig-in-a-blanket, and two from John Hawkes’ loopy Nixer.

On that last point: Hawkes alone makes Roadracers regulation viewing.  Already thirty-four when he shot the film but not looking a day over twelve, Hawkes keeps Nixer off-balance without ever becoming precious or cute.  Whether he’s examining the existential properties of a French Fry or trying to convince anyone who’ll listen that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a documentary, Nixer always carries a slight air of sadness; you know he knows he’s weird, and that he knows his oddness will keep him forever cut off from the world.  It’s a little gem of a performance, and a clear indicator of the great work that would soon follow (“Deadwood,” Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene).

What’s also interesting is how we get to see the limitations of Rodriguez’s prodigious talents.  For pure pulp thrills, there’s no one better, but human nuance escapes him: his striving for more cripples Roadracers‘ last act.  Rodriguez decides he wants to give his hero a soul, and at war within it: Dude’s creative impulses and his potential for success in a real rock-and-roll band versus a Roaring Rampage of Revenge, aimed squarely at Sadler and Wiles.

That things end bloodily shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with Rodriguez’s oeuvre, but the mayhem doesn’t hit as hard as it could because Rodriguez mutes the internal conflict.  Part of that is Arquette’s fault; as entertaining as he is doing his Redneck James Dean impersonation, soulful introspection doesn’t come easy to him.  His “deep in thought” faces looks like squinty-eyed constipation.

But Rodriguez just doesn’t know how to stage inaction.  After the anything-goes mania of the first two acts, he boils down the dramatic conflict to a bunch of scenes where the cast just stands waiting, and the picture’s momentum stalls out.  Even worse: he doesn’t complete Hawkes and Hayek’s dramatic arcs.  The two literally wander off the movie with ten minutes left to go, and then the perfunctory bloodletting kicks in.

The ending turns Roadracers into a minor disappointment, but it’s a fascinating disappointment for film buffs; we view – in real time – Rodriguez adjusting to his own learning curve.  With the release of Desperado one year later, the director had an even better sense of his gifts.  The action was even more frenetic and wild, the soul-searching far more dialed back, and the sheen a glossy Hollywood hue.  Roadracers made that (and everything else) possible – its strengths and weaknesses take on equal importance.

Echo Bridge is handling this Miramax catalog title, and though their past efforts have received a fair bit of scorn (Google “Echo Bridge” and “From Dusk Till Dawn” if you’d like a hate-taste), the Roadracers Blu-ray looks solid.  It’s slightly grainy and soft, but I’d attribute those qualities more to Rodriguez’s source materials than anything else.  I only take issue with the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track; in scenes with loud music and dialogue (and there are quite a few), one or the other often sounds tinny.  Still, more-than acceptable A/V.

Features are light in number but high in quality.  Rodriguez contributes a thorough and relentlessly paced audio commentary as well as a “Ten Minute Film School” featurette where he analyzes some old BTS footage.  Considering how Roadracers‘ oft-neglected status, two supplements seem like a bounty.

Roadracers marks an important marking point in Robert Rodriguez’s career; it shows him melding his low-budget filmmaking speed with the contemporary Hollywood machine.  The exercise served him well: each of his subsequent features has benefited from the experience.

Roadracers streets on April 17th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.