Mixing teen melodrama with a rough-and-tumble coming-of-age plot and a pinch of comedy, Robert Rodriguez's 'Roadracers' is an eccentric but entertaining celebration of the bad-boy image of 1950s greasers. The movie, which was made for the Showtime Network and served as the premiere to their Rebel Highway series, is a loving homage to the low-budget B-films of the era that featured hot-rods and juvenile delinquents, such as Robert Altman's 'The Delinquents' and John Frankenheimer's 'The Young Savages.' The title is actually taken from an all-but-forgotten 1959 drive-in picture from American International Pictures, which was the point of the cable station's short-lived TV series.
Knowing this is not essential to its enjoyment, but it doesn't hurt either. You'll at least come in prepared — amused by its reverence for this type of movie, its satirical takes on the conventions of the subgenre, and its overall quirkiness. And quite quirky it is, displaying much of it low-budget corniness with pride. This was also Rodriguez's follow-up film after his successful debut with 'El Mariachi,' and like his buddy/sometimes partner-in-crime Quentin Tarantino, he shows an incredible admiration for movies most are completely unfamiliar with. Though lacking the finesse and artistic subtlety of Tarantino, Rodriguez exploits and revels in the stereotypes to create humor.
Years before his excessively gory 'Planet Terror' and his Mexploitation actioner 'Machete,' Rodriguez honed his craft for intentionally-degenerate entertainment in this story about rebellious hoodlum Dude, played by then up-and-coming actor David Arquette. The kid, who slathers so much grease on his head that the drippings make guys slip on the bathroom floor, has dreams of getting out of his dead-end town and becoming someone big. Unfortunately, the local sheriff (William Sadler chewing up nearly every scene) and his snot-nose kid (Jason Wiles) keep hassling him, culminating in a shocking and quite satisfying showdown involving one final ride on his hot-rod into the dark unknown.
Keeping in mind that the movie comes from the early part of Rodriguez's career, 'Roadracers' does come with some road blocks and misdemeanors, but it's not bad overall. A few subplots are introduced but never expanded upon, most notably the background history on Dude's life and his feud with the sheriff and son. Nixer's (John Hawkes) obsession with Don Siegel's 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' is continuously brought up, but goes nowhere beyond a cleverly used sight-gag involving the classic film's star, Kevin McCarthy. Dude's girlfriend, Donna (Salma Hayek making her English-speaking film debut), really loves her unruly man and his ultra-cool stare-downs, but she makes a sudden, unexpected turn that just doesn't sit well in the end.
In spite of its shortcomings, however, 'Roadracers' knows how to put on a good show with a very small budget and barely ekes out a satisfying finish. Robert Rodriguez's second full-length feature about rebellious teens is far from memorable considering what he's accomplished since, but it demonstrates the makings and polish of a filmmaker who loves what he's doing and aims to share that enthusiasm with audiences. Take it for what it is — a loving celebration of a bygone subgenre of B-films, taking in their conventions and stereotypes rather than rising above them. It makes for a fun and entertaining viewing experience.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Miramax and Echo Bridge Entertainment release 'Roadracers' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD25 disc inside a standard blue keepcase. Once in the player, the disc goes straight to the main menu with a still and music.
Coming from Echo Bridge Entertainment, 'Roadracers' makes a pit stop on Blu-ray with shockingly good results. Since the movie initially aired on television, it's likely it was shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which would mean the original image has been cropped and zoomed-in to achieve a 1.78:1 window as it is presented here. It's possible it could also have been filmed with a 16:9 frame in mind and cropped to fit the TV screens of that time. But whatever the case may be, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode doesn't look that bad and barely even shows any physical alterations applied. Only a few scenes appear as if zoomed in and are quite ugly with poor resolution and lots of mosquito noise.
As for the rest of the picture, it displays surprisingly strong details, with several moments looking remarkably excellent. At its best, dirt and grime is plainly visible on the hands and faces of Arquette and Hawkes; we can clearly make out the wrinkles on Dude's jackets and the individual strands of hair in the cast; and close-ups reveal distinct textures on the faces of actors. At its worst, the video shows its age with lots of blurriness; background information is occasionally engulfed by the shadows; and it shows some slight signs of noise reduction and artificial sharpening.
What eventually saves the day, however, is a great balance in contrast and brightness levels with crisp whites and deep, nicely-rendered blacks. The color palette doesn't come with a lot of pop and vibrancy, but primaries are clean and accurate. The transfer is far from perfect, but it looks good nonetheless, considering its origins. Only, it would have been a nice option to also see the movie in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, if it were, in fact, shot as such.
Like the possible changes made to the video, the original stereo design has been upgraded to a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Assuming this is the same track supervised by Rodriguez many years ago for a planned DVD release, it's actually not that bad and adds another layer of cheap thrills to the intentionally cheap movie.
At times, the lossless mix can sound somewhat artificial and forced, particularly in the low end. Bass tends to come off a bit exaggerated, but it's nothing which ultimately ruins the movie. It's quite fun, in fact, and the mid-range maintains good detailed clarity of the higher frequencies, though they're never pushed very far. The front soundstage is fairly spacious with surprisingly excellent channel separation and well-prioritized vocals. The rockabilly music used throughout makes the best use of all three speakers and highly amusing. Rear activity is not always consistent, but discrete effects are occasionally employed with lights bleeds from the music, creating a generally satisfying soundfield. Most impressive are the pans and directionality, which were unexpected.
All in all, the track makes a great transition to high-rez audio.
Coming on the heels of its DVD premiere a month prior, this Blu-ray release carries over the same set of bonus features.
Featuring then up-and-coming stars David Arquette, Salma Hayek, and John Hawkes, 'Roadracers' is a loving homage to low-budget B-movies about rebellious teens and their hot-rods. As Robert Rodriguez's second full-length feature, the made-for-TV movie clearly demonstrates the style, confidence and enthusiasm of a filmmaker who only wants to entertain with excess. The Blu-ray comes with a surprisingly good audio and video presentation but a below average collection of supplements. Still, fans of the director and retro-filmmaking in general will be very happy with their purchase or at least give it a rent. Worth a look.