Roadracers (1994)

I can’t be the only one who assumed Desperado was Robert Rodriguez’s second movie following El Mariachi, making the existence of this giddy little made-for-TV movie a nice surprise. Conceived of and shot in the interim between his breakthrough movies, Roadracers was intended as a training ground project to help Rodriguez transition from being a one-man crew to being in charge of an actual team of collaborators. He wrote it based on an eclectic stewing pot of influences he wanted to indulge in. So: 50s greasers, B-movies, hot rods, beautiful women, kinetic violence and rockabilly music with a fetishistic emphasis on guitars. A Robert Rodriguez movie, basically.

And I’m totally down for that! Like Rodriguez, I love sensations and Roadracers is full of ’em. The wind in the faces of the kids as they drive their cars at night, the screech of rubber on asphalt, the slop and squish of a tub of hair grease smothered endlessly over black hair, smoke rings and the lightning strike editing of a band jamming out their hottest tune; all of these images are delivered with emphasised sound design and punch. As with most of Rodriguez’s movies, Roadracers exists in a malleable, cartoon reality; a pop culture-saturated universe brought to life with a child-like sense of giddiness that makes even its cheapest tricks pleasurable. A farce-like chase in an ice-rink for example, or a winking cameo from Invasion of the Body Snatchers star Kevin McCarthy (watching his own film, no less) just add more colour to the comic strip.

Stars David Arquette and Salma Hayek, both appearing in two of their earliest roles, exude a lot of youthful energy and sexiness. Arquette has a devilish glint in his eye which Rodriguez milks for all he can while Hayek – with all her jaw-dropping beauty and charisma – shows why she was destined for super-stardom. One sequence featuring the two dancing to rock n’ roll, completely kitted out in 50s duds with 50s surroundings, is worth the price of admission alone. John Hawkes even pops up as the B-movie obsessed best friend. Although, you can’t escape the fact that a lot of this is just surface pleasures.

For all the thrills a wide-eyed sugar rush delivers, there’s always a bit of a comedown. A few scenes here and there fall flat and Rodriguez’s seeming inability to just slow things down or settle for a few minutes undercuts some emotional beats. There’s also an iffy subplot played for laughs involving one poor girl being repeatedly humiliated and tormented – her hair is set on fire during her first scene, and that’s just for starters – that feels needlessly cruel and tonally misjudged. But these missteps don’t derail the film entirely.

The film looks great and is full of good looking people and good looking things (those cars, the jukeboxes, the outfits). It’s very stylish and alive; much better than its non-reputation would suggest. Clearly made at a lightning pace and intended to be devoured like junk food, it’s hard to knock a movie that works exactly how it means to. A worthy and playful chapter of the Rodriguez canon even if it’s the filmic equivalent of an obscure bonus track.

Watched on blu-ray

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