Robert Rodriguez’s 1950’s Greasehead Rumble

Cinema’s history is filled with eccentric rarities and oddities. Robert Rodriguez’s second film, Roadracers, is one of these.

Shot in a mere 13 days, Roadracers is a lost film. How I was ignorant to the fact that Rodriguez, a favorite of mine, filmed a rough rumble and tumble picture about 1950’s greasers battling it out in Texas I will never know.

Dude Delaney (David Arquette) is a cynical bad boy. He cares about his fast car, his girlfriend Donna (Salma Hayek) and his best friend Nixer (John Hawkes). What he doesn’t care for is the corrupt police officer chasing him around town (William Sadler) and his punk son Teddy (Jason Wiles).

Now one fine night, Dude, Donna and Nixer are cruising. Very cool. Teddy and his cronies happen to pull up next to the three. After Teddy’s girlfriend makes some fantastically racist comments about Donna’s Mexican ethnicity, Dude “accidentally” lights her hair on fire. This hilarious moment, which no one, including the girl with her hair on fire, realizes for a few moments, sets the stage for the feud between Teddy and his father.

Roadracers was apparently made for the Showtime series Rebel Highway. The concept of the series was to take 1950 film ideas, like Rebel Without a Cause, and bring them into the 1990’s with a bit of that “modern” edge. With how little I can find about the series, I am willing to bet it was a commercial failure. Rodriguez shot the film in 13 days. I would love to watch a documentary on that speedy process.

There’s something really and truly special about Roadracers. It has this snarky and sometimes hidden comedic value tucked inside of it. Take, for example, the opening conversation between the two police officers. The sheriff describes his pig in a blanket, that his mother always makes for him, and the intricacies of it. He talks about the bread and the hot dog in a great detail. He gives his partner one and tells him to stick it in his pocket in case he’s hungry later. It’s deeply funny and strange, juxtaposing the serious tone the sheriff takes when he is talking to his son or to Dude.

But what is truly special about this film is the way it parallels with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The film is set in 1956, when the original body snatching film was released. Hawkes’ character Nixer, a weird young man, is obsessed with the film and terrified of its concept. In body snatchers, an undetermined something takes the souls of humans and replaces them with a look-a-like that has no emotion and no purpose other than to work, and so on. It’s a fascinating film in its own right.

How it works into Roadracers is unique. Throughout the whole film Dude wants to be the opposite of popular, he doesn’t want to fit in, he doesn’t want to be another face in the crowd. He is unique and his love for rock and roll is one of the best examples of that. In that way, he’s the one who fears having his emotions lost like the people in Body Snatchers. He fears becoming an average person. He fears it so much that when he finally sees Body Snatchers he’s terrified of the concept.

It’s a strange film to juxtapose a film about some greaseheads having a feud in Texas, but knowing the way Rodriguez has loved and worked with science fiction/B-movies/horror in the years to follow this 1994 production we understand why he chose it and how it makes perfect sense. Even better, the star of the original Body Snatchers, Kevin McCarthy, makes a terrific cameo as a member of the audience watching the film he starred in nearly 40 years prior to Roadracers. That put a smile on my face.

For all the tongue-in-cheek humor that Roadracers delivers, it is actually a really cynical and dark film. It’s moody, thanks in large part to Dude’s desire to hate society and the pain he and Nixer feel when they realize they’ve amounted to nothing. With good performances from both Arquette and Hawkes, the two friends, very different in personality, make for a really nice onscreen duo.

As Roadracers boiling feud comes to a head, more and more about Dude, his life and his desires comes to the forefront. The film eventually spirals into a hellish and violent conclusion that, honestly, was pretty unexpected when you consider the way the feud began with harmless and slapstick moments at a roller skating rink. The total package presented from Rodriguez is special. I love going back to a filmmaker’s earliest couple of films and watching their style and talent find itself. You can see a lot of Rodriguez’s future films in this early work making it one of those little gems that you cannot let sneak by.

Funny enough, the most meaningful piece of dialogue comes in the credits during a brief blooper reel. Arquette, trying to act cool in the character of Dude, tries repeatedly to pull off a cool move by flipping a cigarette from his hand into his mouth and striking a match to quickly light it. He fails and fails. Arquette, ad-libbing, says something to the note: “Sometimes you can’t be as cool as you think you are.” Ain’t that right.

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