Thursday, August 11, 2016

Television Review: ROADRACERS (1994, Robert Rodriguez)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
Tag-line: "Rent all the action!"
Notable Cast or Crew: David Arquette (EIGHT-LEGGED FREAKS, SCREAM), John Hawkes (DEADWOOD, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN), Salma Hayek (DESPERADO, FRIDA), Jason Wiles (KICKING AND SCREAMING, THE STEPFATHER '09), William Sadler (BILL & TED'S BOGUS JOURNEY, DIE HARD 2, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE MIST), Kevin McCarthy (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, INNERSPACE), Mark Lowenthal ("Walter Neff" the insurance salesman on TWIN PEAKS, SCENES FROM THE CLASS STRUGGLE IN BEVERLY HILLS). Co-written by Robert Rodriguez and Tommy Nix (a Rodriguez crony who appears as himself here, and has cameos in DESPERADO, SIN CITY, PLANET TERROR, etc.).
Best One-liner: "Little dab'll do ya."

In the mid-90s, Debra Hill (HALLOWEEN, THE FOG), William Kutner, and Lou Arkoff (son of the legendary Samuel Z.) produced ten made-for-TV movies for Showtime, each intending to pay homage to 50's and 60's American International pictures, the kind of teensploitation populated by greasers, good girls gone bad, rock n' roll bands, biker gangs, and other sorts of juvenile delinquents. The directors were given $1.3 million and twelve days to shoot their work with a minimum of studio interference. I've seen all ten of these now, and they definitely vary wildly in quality––there are highs like SHAKE, RATTLE, AND ROCK! (Allan Arkush's prequel to ROCK N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL) and RUNAWAY DAUGHTERS (some Joe Dante silliness that sort of functions as a HOWLING reunion), lows like COOL AND THE CRAZY (Ralph Bakshi tries live-action while Jared Leto tries very hard to be simultaneously "cool" and "crazy" while achieving neither), and oddities like JAILBREAKERS (William Friedkin directs Adrienne Barbeau and Shannen Doherty in a 'cheerleader-gone-bad' tale?!). Of all of these films, I must say that the best of them is probably ROADRACERS, by then-up-and-coming action maverick Robert Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, fresh off of his debut (EL MARIACHI), strives for what none of the REBEL HIGHWAY veterans does: he injects his episode with style. It's legitimately cool, in a rockabilly Jean-Luc Godard, Jim Jarmusch-in-a-leather-jacket kind of way.

(Come to think of it, why didn't they ask Jarmusch to do one of these?  Or John Waters?)

Squealin' rockabilly saxophone works wonders

As a REBEL HIGHWAY episode, ROADRACERS is unique in almost every aspect. The plot is very free-form, nearly Linklater-esque, and Rodriguez meanders between the scenes, ideas, and locales (diners, gas stations, clubs, movie theaters, etc.) that most fascinate him. I suppose, abstractly, it's a film about musicians and dreams, though it's also about teen love and impulse, rural malaise and the thrill of escape, small-town weirdness and bloody revenge. In the latter two respects, it has an almost Lynchian specificity, helped along by the fact that the characters are idiosyncratic and feel very "lived-in."
Take David Arquette's sassy bad-boy greaser, for instance––a little more bizarre and nihilistic than your traditional lead, the character's not particularly likable, but he's unpredictable, and always compelling. Oddly, he's a little more Jean-Paul Belmondo than James Dean.

In a scene of typically gleeful Rodriguez excess, David Arquette piles some pomade in his hair that looks more like ectoplasm, or the xenomorph Queen's saliva:

Then there's John Hawkes as Arquette's sidekick/Sal Mineo, a character who gives a poignant diner monologue about a school of philosophy best described as "French Fry Existentialism."

ROADRACERS ain't playin' it safe, pally!

Or observe William Sadler's vicious small-town cop (who still lives with his mother), introduced while giving a monologue (to Mark Lowenthal, a TWIN PEAKS bit player) about pigs-in-a-blanket:

It's fuckin' creepy, and really sets a tone. Whether he's doing sinister, naked tai chi, taking on Bill & Ted at Twister, or murdering the exonerated for The Cryptkeeper's amusement, Sadler is one of the great cinematic villains.

We also have Jason Wiles as an antagonistic, "Do you know who my father is?!" sort of small-town brat.

I really enjoyed him as a lovable goofus in Noah Baumbach's KICKING AND SCREAMING, so it was especially fun to see him here dripping ominous n' whiny sleaze.

Salma Hayek, in her American debut, is given a bit of a short shrift; ostensibly she's here to be Arquette's love interest, though she gives the character quite a bit of weight in a relatively small amount of screentime.

Additionally, she's the only Latina (with adoptive white parents) in this entire backwater town, and consequently there are a number of opportunities for piercing social commentary and Sirk-style melodrama, and while the film briefly explores these, we're left with the feeling that most of it was left on the cutting room floor.

In any event, it was enough to snag her the lead in DESPERADO, so there's that.

Ultimately, Rodriguez, working within The System for the first time, does manage to make the film his own. There are Mexican stand-offs with switchblades:

a drag race, puncutated by the surreal imagery of a woman's hair on fire:

a cameo by Kevin McCarthy (I wonder why he didn't pop up in Rodriguez's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS/THE THING/SCREAM mash-up, THE FACULTY?) appearing as a fourth-wall-breaking theater-goer during a screening of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS:

You're next?

and finally, in the manic, LOST HIGHWAY-prefiguring conclusion, we reach peak levels of cheerful Rodriguez nihilism. I like to image that Arquette drives straight out of this movie and into RIDING THE BULLET.

All in all, I really enjoyed this thing, and additionally got a big kick out of the DVD's cover art, which pretends that all of this is somehow a missing chapter of SIN CITY (?!):

I wholeheartedly recommend. (Also, check out J.D.'s illuminating review over at Radiator Heaven!)

–Sean Gill

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