Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, January 11, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (1994)

2. Roadracers

Among cult movie fans, there's a great deal of nostalgia for the movies released by Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson's American International Pictures. B-movie peddlers who sold movies more on their awesome poster arts and catchy titles, than their actual content, Arkoff and Nicholson's nevertheless produced their fair share of actual art. In the early nineties, Sam's son Lou decided to cash in on his day's legacy. “Rebel Highways” was a series of television films produced for Showtime. They took their titles from A.I.P.'s library of fifties youth movies.

Notable directors were given these names and allowed to do whatever they want with them, given the choice of remaking the original plots or discarding them totally. Among a collection of beloved directors – such as John Milius, Joe Dante, Mary Lambert, William Friedkin, Ralph Bakshi – was Robert Rodriguez. A last minute replacement for Wes Craven, Rodriguez was the youngest of the group and the one with the most to prove. His “Roadracers” would be among the best received of this collection of projects. Though overlooked for years, the film provides an interesting bridging project between Rodriguez' guerrilla roots and his calling as a director of explosion filled action flicks.

Dude Delaney is a young man with simple desires. He wants to play his rock n' roll music loud and hard. He wants to drive his car fast and frequently. He dreams of running away from his small home town with Donna, his beautiful girlfriend. The local sheriff has it out for Dude, a grudge he carries over from his dad. The sheriff's son, Teddy, also hates Dude. Especially after an altercation between the two ends with Teddy crashing his car and one of their girlfriend's hair being burned off. Now,  the young people race towards a collision with violence. If he's not careful, Dude might just loose everything he cares about along the way.

“Roadracers” goes out of its way to hit every cliché you associate with fifties “youth pictures.” Dude wears a leather jacket over a white tank top. Donna and the other girls have big hair and tight pants. There's a movie theater showing classic sci-fi/horror flicks. The youths frequently hang out at a dinner run by a gruff but kind owner. And, naturally, there's quite a lot of drag racing and rockabilly. A lot of the filmmakers working on “Rebel Highways” were boomers and experienced some of this stuff firsthand. Robert Rodriguez was born in 1968. So “Roadracers” goes one level deeper, being more like an apotheosis of pop culture's recollections of the fifties than an actual throwback.

Some times, Rodriguez seems to intentionally be goofing on these ideas. “Roadracers” slips into self-parody from time to time. There's multiple shots devoted to Dude putting so much grease in his hair. During a delightfully silly sequence set at a roller rink, Dude even weaponize that grease in a hysterically goofy way. Some of the confrontations in the dinner, especially one prominently featuring a ketchup bottle, is very silly as well. The character of Nixer, Dude's spacey best friend, is fairly ridiculous. He rants in a paranoid fashion, acting like he's probably on drugs. It's clear that “Roadracers,” despite some of the intense violence in the last act, does not take itself all that seriously.

Dude Delaney is a rebel but not quite one without a cause. Like so many teenage protagonists before and after him, Dude is rebelling against what he sees as small town conformity. This is best represented by his struggles with the sheriff. Referred to only as Sarge, he's an asshole voice of authority, demanding everyone in the town conform to his ideas. Yet it manifests in other ways,  such as his dislike of the softer rock music on the radio. Or against the racism that his rivals casually throw at Donna. Putting a fine point on this theme is a background subplot, where Nixer repeatedly sees “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” at the local theater. To a disaffected teenager, small town normies and pod people probably don't seem too different.

Dude's desire not to conform eventually becomes self-destructive. He rebels against his rock star idols, after he perceives them as selling out. Instead of leaving with Donna, like she wants too, he focuses on settling petty conflicts with his small town rivals. This characterizes his self-destructive streak as distinctively masculine too. (The lead character being named “Dude” surely wasn't an accident either.) Sarge hated Dude's dad, Sarge's son hates Dude, so this boyish rivalry extends through generations. The bloodshed is ultimately the result of a macho dick measuring contest that can only end in death. In a way, this continues the bleaker themes of “El Mariachi,” where violence only strips away, instead of invigorates.

But maybe my opinions are being too high-minded here. “Roadracers” is a rock-n-roll-and-cars movies. Like the fifties B-flicks it was inspired by, the film is meant to tickle the lizard brain. So, yes, there are some pretty bitchin' car chases. The movie begins with one, the camera racing along with the roaring engines. It ends with another, the film climaxing with a massive explosion and then slamming to credits. In-between, vehicles slam through billboards and collide with lamp posts. As for the rock music, large portions of the film are scored to the rumbling guitars and power riffs of Link Wray. When that's not playing, Johnny Reno's band-within-the-film provides quite a few hot rockabilly beats.

Robert Rodriguez' directorial style continues to evolve. Though the camerawork and editing is not quite as frantic here as it was in “El Mariachi,” “Roadracers” is still a hyperactive film. There are several fast-paced montages, set to rocking music and driven by the characters' movements. Towards the end, in order to better reflect Dude's splintering mind, more quick-cuts and fast-paced pans are employed. The race sequences get in as close to the twisting chrome and roaring engines as possible. So the director only settles his quickly-becoming-a-trademark energy down a little for his mainstream debut.

“Roadracers” is a star vehicle for David Arquette, who probably isn't the first name that comes to mind when you think of stereotypical cool dudes. Yet Arquette actually does extremely well as Dude, playing up the greaser coolness while also showing a softer side, especially when he talks about his music or his girlfriend. Ahead of their more notable team-ups, Robert Rodriguez and Salma Hayek worked together on “Roadracers.” It seemed like an inevitable pairing, as Hayek projects the exact kind of sex appeal Rodriguez was already clearly striving for in his films. She's pretty good too, as one of the few reasonable voices in a story driven by gonads. (Not too mention, of course, insanely sexy.) The two have reasonably good chemistry together as well

There are some familiar faces in the supporting cast too. A young John Hawkes is likably unhinged as Nixer, Dude's oddball best friend. William Sadler is perfect as the asshole Sarge, embodying the voice of 1950s, toxically masculine authority. The script also gives Sadler some quirks too, such as an odd obsession with his mom's homemade pigs-in-a-blanket. Jason Wiles is a slimy dirt bag as Teddy, a bully too stuck on his own outlook of things. I also liked O'Neal Compton as J.T., the dinner owner who stands up for his young customers. Also watch out for an amusing cameo from Kevin McCarthy.

And let me digress for a minute. “Roadracers” is really the only movie from the Rebel Highways series people still talk about. While a few of the titles are at least attached to well known filmmakers, the efforts from Jonathan Kaplan, John McNoughton, Uli Edel and Alan Arkush have really faded into obscurity. Lou Arkoff would try something similar in 2001 with “Creature Features.” This time, inspiration was taken from A.I.P.'s monster movies and the final product aired on Cinemax. This was a great idea but the results were also lacking. While “Rebel Highways” only produced one movie of real note, “Creatures Features” produced zero. So I guess Robert Rodriguez was ahead in that regard too.

Anyway... For years, “Roadracers” was somewhat hard to find, only being available as a VHS tape. It was highly sought after by Rodriguez fans, hoping to see the hidden gem that was the director's first movie with a studio budget. A DVD release was initially planned in 2005 but never reached store shelves. The film wouldn't actually come out on disc until 2013, when many of Miramax's properties would be shuffled off to Echo Bridge Entertainment. Now, fans of the director can actually see what very well may be one of his best – and certainly among his most underrated – films. [Grade: B+]

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