Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Starring David Arquette, Salma Hayek, John Hawkes, Jason Wiles, William Sadler, Mark Lowenthal, Johnny Reno.
In his first outing (this time his job responsibilities scaled back to director, co-writer, and editor) since the surprise success of El Mariachi, Rodriguez has helmed the perfect AIP 1950s drive-in exploitation movie (as distinguished, say, from the 1970s New World drive-in exploitation movie). A wild, hot-rod-driving, guitar-playing, black jacket-wearing rebel named Dude (Arquette) is being harassed by the town's vicious sheriff (Sadler) and a gang of thugs led by the sheriff's son (Wiles). His Hispanic girlfriend Donna (Hayek), living with her Anglo parents, is both verbally assaulted and physically threatened by the thugs. Dude races through clearly focused scenes in which the visual elements of the classic drive-in movie are visually savored. A celebration of Fifties delinquency, Roadracers is an American story about identity and conformity. Appropriately and emphatically, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is playing at the local theatre. This is a brilliant popular culture jam, a combining of visual, narrative, and symbolic elements into a hell boiling over drive-in smash. Rodriguez makes beautiful movies; there are at least three sustained interludes, set to a specific beat, in which the film is cut in a rock & roll style three non-musical musical numbers in which the fluidity of Rodriguez's cinema transcends the movie, any movie, and rocks. Hackneyed and predictable, it is a brilliant and funny exploitation movie and very much of its genre. It is the perfect Roger Corman movie, the one he never made himself. Cinema is visceral. Ingmar Bergman and Russ Meyer both give me headaches because, despite the differences in their work, their styles are similar. Both overload the screen with meaning Bergman austerely and Meyer excessively. Rodriguez is a gosh-wow stylist with awesome cutting control who can, with equaly ease, move his camera around the screen or switch to tight close-ups as his characters talk. As carefully as he builds his films narratively, he is even more inspired in the way he builds them visually. Rodriguez has style to burn. Roadracers is an exercise, a working out of conceptual ideas but it is also a barreling tribute to its AIP predecessors. Not a mythic reworking or a revisionist history, this is, rather, a seamless evocation, the best drive-in movie of the Fifties that was made in 1994, and Rodriguez makes it work largely by playing it straight (the scene where the couple makes love while he plays guitar behind his head is both erotic and silly). Musically, the film's inspiration is Link Wray with cuts by Haskil Adkins (providing soundtrack to a virtuoso demonstration of cutting technique during a roller-rink sequence) and Charlie Sexton doing Gene Vincent. Viscerally, Rodriguez cuts right down the middle and powers this film along on the beauty of his cutting. This is simply wonderful movie-making though I mean not to make too much of a $1.3 million-budget, 13-day shooting schedule, Made-for-Showtime cable movie). I just like watching Rodriguez work, his flashy style is simply a cinematic pleasure. But he also gets great performances, Arquette and Hayek are good as the leads, Arquette's goofiness confusing enough to serve the story, with ex-Austinite Hawkes turning in an inspired turn as Arquette's kind-of-geeky friend. Notable, too, is Reno, whose musical performance provides the backdrop for a number of scenes including the sustained, audacious opening. Alas, I don't have Showtime because the rest of the Rebel Highway series seems equally inspired including features directed by Joe Dante (a script by Charlie Haas), John Milius, Mary Lambert, Ralph Bakshi, John McNaughton (with a script by Samuel Fuller and Christa Lang), William Friedkin, Allan Arkush Jonathan Kaplan, and Uli Edel.
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