Still hot off his feature film debut with El Mariachi (1992), Roadracers (1994) marked Robert Rodriguez’s first foray into the Hollywood studio system and it was not a smooth transition. Accustomed to shooting fast and loose and with complete creative control, he met resistance from a crew that were used to working a certain way and at a certain pace and they resented this young upstart coming in and changing the way things were done. However, this experience prepared him for his next project, which would also be done with a studio.
Roadracers was part of a series of made-for-television movies entitled Rebel Highway for the Showtime channel that aired in 1994. The concept was a series of 1950s B-movies remade “with a ‘90s edge,” spearheaded by Lou Arkoff, son of legendary movie producer Samuel Z. Arkoff, and Debra Hill (Halloween). The two producers invited directors like John Milius, Joe Dante and William Friedkin to pick a title from one of Arkoff’s movies, hire their own writer, select their own director of photography and editor, and have final cut. They were only given $1.3 million and 12 days to shoot their film with a cast of young, up and coming actors and actresses. Used to shooting fast and cheap, this set-up must’ve appealed to Rodriguez who created the most entertaining installment and remained truest to the spirit of those ‘50s B-movies.
The film starts off in typical energetic Rodriguez fashion as local juvenile delinquent Dude Delaney (David Arquette) outwits the local cops in his hot rod while his girlfriend Donna (Salma Hayek) cools her heels to the blistering rockabilly stylings of Johnny Reno. The music and Rodriguez’s rhythmic editing perfectly compliment the Dude’s wild driving and wild behavior as he arrives at the nightclub, manages to charm his disgruntled girlfriend, and whoop it up to Reno’s music.
Dude’s best friend Nixer (John Hawkes) hitches a ride, much to Donna’s chagrin, and babbles on about his latest obsession – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). They soon cross paths with Teddy Leather (Jason Wiles), the local tough kid, and his friends, challenging them to a drag race all to the distinct strains of Link Wray’s music. Rodriguez has a lot of fun with this scene as Nixer insults Teddy’s girlfriend (“I got a boner the size of your head!”) and Dude casually flicks his lit cigarette on her hair (so obviously a wig), which ignites it at the crucial moment in the race.
These opening scenes do an excellent job of capturing the silly fun of goofing off with your friends when you’re young and have your whole life ahead of you. Rodriguez himself was just starting out and brings an energy and vitality that is exciting to watch as it translates on-screen in the way he shoots and edits every scene. It is like the frame can barely contain the action in it.
After the drag race, Teddy swears revenge on Dude as does his father Sarge (William Sadler), who just so happens to be the head cop in this small Texas town. He has been looking for any excuse to bust the young punk.
With his slicked-back pompadour, unshaven look and mischievous smirk permanently affixed to his face, David Arquette certainly looks the part of a ‘50s juvenile delinquent – the kind that wakes up in bed with his electric guitar and lives from one goof to the next, epitomized by the tried and true cliché of live fast and die young. Arquette has always been something of an eccentric performer that Hollywood never quite figured out what to do with – the notable exception being the Scream movies, which allowed him to indulge in his trademark quirkiness. Rodriguez gives him license to have fun with the role, knowing what a plumb part it is for a young actor – playing a cool delinquent that aspires to be a rock ‘n’ roll musician like his hero Link Wray. Dude is a restless soul with unbridled energy that this small-town just can’t contain and Arquette conveys this in his enthusiastic performance.
William Sadler appears to be having a blast as the film’s antagonist – the authoritative cop. Rodriguez allows the actor to stretch out in what amounts to a fairly standard role by giving him substantial moments like early on when Sarge goes into detail about how good the pigs in blankets his mother makes for him are to his new partner. Just watch how Sadler savors the admittedly tasty-looking snack like it was the best food on earth. It’s all a bit ridiculous but that’s kinda the point and it gives us some insight into his character. As a result, Sarge is more than just a faceless authority figure.
In an early role, John Hawkes plays Dude’s best friend and movie fanatic, convinced that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is real. The actor gets to dish out some of the funniest insults as his character gleefully pokes fun of Teddy and his gang. Hawkes plays well off of Arquette and their scenes together are a lot of fun to watch as they react to each other’s antics. For example, there’s a scene where Nixer watches in awe as Dude applies a massive amount of hair gel to his hair providing the sequence’s perfectly timed punchline, “Little dab’ll do ya.” This is a set-up for an even more impressive scene where Dude uses said gel to slick down a roller rink so that Teddy and his boys take a spill all to the vintage rockabilly music of Hasil Adkins.
In what was her American acting debut, Mexican bombshell Salma Hayek is just fine as Dude’s girlfriend. Admittedly, she doesn’t have much to do except look beautiful and act exasperated at her boyfriend’s antics. Rodriguez tries to give her something to work with by showing the racism Donna encounters from her white classmates. He uses the allegory of conformity in Body Snatchers for the small-mindedness of the town that treats her like a second-class citizen because of her ethnicity.
When Wes Craven dropped out at the last minute to make another A Nightmare on Elm Street movie, the producers of Showtime’s Rebel Highway series of made-for-T.V. movies asked Robert Rodriguez to fill in because he had proven with El Mariachi that he could make one fast and cheap: “So I had the least amount of money out of everyone else in the whole slate of pictures. They figured they would make up the difference on mine, and that’s why I got in on it.” He was given a budget of $700,000 (El Mariachi was made for only $7,000!), wrote the screenplay in two weeks and was given 13 days to shoot Roadracers, one less than he did on El Mariachi.
Rodriguez meant with resistance from the get-go as he clashed with the producers over the film’s composer. They had already hired one and he told them to give the man half the money and let him use the other half to bring in Texan musician Johnny Reno whom Rodriguez knew from elementary school. The filmmaker saw Roadracers as an opportunity to work on a larger film before making Desperado (1995), the sequel to El Mariachi with Antonio Banderas. It also gave him a chance to show that Salma Hayek could act in English so he could cast her in Desperado.
For Rodriguez, it was a film of several firsts – it was first time shooting on 35mm and the first time he worked with professional actors and crew, the latter of which proved to be a challenge for the young filmmaker. A lot of the movies in the series were going over budget and over schedule in terms of hours (18-20 hour days) and Rodriguez inherited a crew that was burnt out. He ended up shooting most of the film himself. “I was just this little punk, so they looked at me and were questioning everything that I was doing because I was shooting really fast and I was shooting my edits. I wasn’t shooting full shots.”
In addition, his preferred method was to work fast: “The actors didn’t have much time to overthink what they were doing, and I didn’t either as a filmmaker. I just went by complete instinct and let my subconscious take over.” John Hawkes, who played Dude’s best friend Nixer, remembers that Rodriguez “was kind of frustrated, because even though it was a small project by Hollywood standards, I think he felt like it was over-crewed, that there were just too many people around … He was very much a do-it-yourself guy. About a couple of days into the shoot, he was pretty much shooting it himself.”
Roadracers received mostly positive notices from critics. In his review for The New York Times, John J. O’Connor wrote, “From square parents to ominous rumbles, Roadracers doesn’t miss a cliché in the depiction of rebels without a cause. Skillfully done, though.” The Los Angeles Times’ Chris Willman wrote, “Roadracers, too, looks and feels as if it were done on the fly, with adrenaline dripping into the editing bay.” In his review for the Austin Chronicle, Lewis Black wrote, “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.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B-“ rating and Mike D’Angelo wrote, “Buoyed by winning performances from David Arquette and Salma Hayek and ferociously kinetic editing by Rodriguez, it makes for a fun pastiche…at least until it turns needlessly violent and ‘realistic.’” Finally, New York Magazine’s John Leonard called it, “surprisingly entertaining.” In retrospect, Rodriguez said of this film: “You look back and go, ‘I don’t even direct or shoot or edit like that anymore.’ You wish you could get back to that.”
Rodriguez inherently understands what ‘50s iconography is cool – hot rods, rock ‘n’ roll music, black leather jackets, and beautiful women – and fills Roadracers with them. If there is a particular emphasis on period music it’s because he’s a musician himself and applies the energy and rhythm of ‘50s rockabilly to the pacing of his film so that it is the cinematic equivalent of this music. This explains why Rodriguez revels in Dude’s musical epiphany – when he messes up his amp but as a result gets an awesomely loud and distorted sound reminiscent of the thunderous sound of his hero Link Wray. Rodriguez proceeds to contrast this with the safe, sell-out sound of Reno’s other band that turns out to be nothing but a façade as Nixer finds out they’re miming to a record player, which is the ultimately betrayal as far as Dude’s concerned. It drives Dude a little mad and the film along with until it builds in intensity to a nightmarish climax. What Roadracers lacks in substance it more than makes up for in style and let’s face it, Rodriguez has never been pre-occupied with substance. His films’ primary goals are to entertain and have some fun and this one delivers on both counts.
Brennan, Patricia. “Fast Cars, Fast Girls and Raging Hormones.” Washington Post. July 17, 1994.
Corliss, Richard. “I was a Teenage Teenager.” Time. August 15, 1994.
Gallagher, Brian. “John Hawkes Talks Roadracers.” MovieWeb. April 20, 2012.
Huver, Scott. “Robert Rodriguez Looks Back at Roadracers, Ahead to Machete Kills and Sin City 2.” Popcorn Biz. April 24, 2012.
Nicholson, Max. “Rodriguez Reflects on Roadracers.” IGN. April 20, 2012.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “The Way We Weren’t.” Chicago Reader. November 18, 1994.
Sullivan, Kevin P. “Robert Rodriguez Reminisces about his Early Film Roadracers.” MTV. April 24, 2012.