Thursday, April 5, 2012

ROADRACERS (Blu-ray)

A rock 'n roll rebel without a cause. A sexy girlfriend from the other side of the tracks. A hardboiled sheriff with a grudge. Put them together, and you've got... well, any number of teen rebellion melodramas from the heyday of the drive-ins. But they also happen to be the ingredients of filmmaker Robert Rodriguez' little-known second feature, ROADRACERS, which he directed for the Showtime cable channel back in 1994, between EL MARIACHI and DESPERADO.

Small-town greaser, Dude (David Arquette, SCREAM), doesn't like much, but he does like his stunning girlfriend Donna (Salma Hayek, DESPERADO, FROM DUSK 'TIL DAWN). He also loves rock 'n roll music and the freedom it represents. Unfortunately for Dude, he's got plenty of troubles, beginning with a vindictive local sheriff named Sarge (William Sadler, TRESPASS, THE MIST) and the Sarge's punk son, Teddy Leather (Jason Wiles). As his conflict with the sheriff (and son) escalates, the Dude is forced to make some hard choices....

Back in 1994, Showtime aired a series called REBEL HIGHWAY - ten remakes-in-name-only of juvenile delinquent/rock 'n roll exploitation films originally produced and released through Samuel Arkoff's American International Pictures in the 1950s. The series was produced by Lou Arkoff and Debra Hill. The directors - a list of established pros that included Allan Arkush, Joe Dante, Mary Lambert, Johnathan Kaplan, Ralph Bakshi (!), John Milius and William Friedkin - were each given a budget of  $1.3 million dollars and a 12-day shooting schedule. They were instructed to pick a title and do whatever they wanted with it.

As one might expect, the quality of the films varied quite a bit. Probably the best of them came from the least-experienced filmmaker in the bunch. Based on the critical success of his $7,000 microbudgeted action flick, EL MARIACHI, Arkoff and Hill offered Robert Rodriguez a slot in the line-up. He picked the title ROADRACERS, and it became his second feature-length movie.

ROADRACERS is a lot of 50's fun, and remarkably polished, considering Rodriguez' inexperience at the time. Many of the trademarks and stylistic flourishes of his later films are in evidence, and he handles the cast as smoothly as the action. Arquette is surprisingly good as the brooding Dude, and Sadler is terrific as the sheriff. At the time of filming, Rodriguez was prepping DESPERADO for Columbia Pictures, and was having a hard time convincing the studio suits to go along with his choice of Mexican actress Salma Hayek for the female lead. To help persuade them, he cast her in ROADRACERS - and she steals the show with her screen presence and charm. (Not to mention her smoldering beauty.)

ROADRACERS was released in the late 90s on VHS and laserdisc, but never received a digital release until now. A special edition DVD was announced a few years ago, but never materialized. Now the film has finally made it to DVD and Blu-ray from budget label Echo Bridge Entertainment. Echo Bridge is not a label that's popular with serious videophiles and collectors, as they show little regard for such things as correct aspect ratios and remastered transfers. Almost every title they get their hands on is reformatted to a 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio, regardless of the movie's intended format, because that's the standard TV ratio now. They've done this for ROADRACERS, as well, but determining the "true" format for this film is problematic. It originally aired at 1.33:1 as a cable TV film, but on laserdisc, it was slightly matted to a 1.66:1 ratio. The Echo Bridge version further crops the top and bottom a bit more to 1.78:1. Visually, the compositions do not look terribly compromised from the laserdisc presentation, so it's hard to make too much of a fuss about the change.

The overall picture quality is pretty decent, but not spectacular, with a 1080p HD transfer that offers a pleasing color palette and fairly stable contrasts. Film grain looks natural most of the time, but there are scattered moments where the picture goes oddly soft. It's a fairly mediocre HD transfer; not bad, but not reference quality, either. Audio options include the original 2.0 stereo mix, and a new, 5.1 DTS remix supervised by Rodriguez for the aborted special edition DVD. The only bonus features are the terrific audio commentary by Rodriguez that first appeared on the laserdisc, and a new "10-Minute Film School" featurette.

Obviously, I'm a big fan of the flick. It's early Rodriguez, before he became enamored (or could afford) extensive greenscreen and virtual, CGI special effects. It has real cars, kinetic action, great music, and a first-class cast. Highly recommended.

BUYRoadracers [Blu-ray]