Made for the Showtime Network cable channel in 1994 for the Rebel Highway series, Robert Rodriguez's Roadracers never got the DVD justice it deserved (though it did come out on VHS) but thanks to Echobridge and their efforts, it's now available almost twenty years since it was made. For those who haven't seen it before (and it has been tough to come by), the storyline is set in the fifties and follows a teenage rebel type named Dude Delaney (David Arquette) who likes to drive fast and wail on his guitar much to the dismay of the local sheriff, Sarge (William Sadler). Dude's a troublemaker, and seemingly proud of it. The sheriff and Dude have a past though - years back the law ran Dude's father out of town, so there's no way they're going to like one another.
You know who does like Dude though? Donna (Salma Hayek). And Dude likes her back. She hangs off of him and they're definitely into one another but things get bad when Dude and his pal Nixer (John Hawkes) accidently set a girl's hair on fire by flicking a cigarette at her boyfriend, Teddy (Jason Wiles). Complicating matters is the little issue of Teddy's dad - you guessed it, Sarge. No side is going to back down from the obvious and impending storm that's very quickly brewing, and you just know that this is going to end badly for somebody...
Made with an obvious love for the juvenile delinquent films that were popular in the fifties and sixties and playing (rather strongly) to the stereotypes associated with that genre, Roadracers was shot in record time (thirteen days) and actually came in under budget but never suffers from poor production values or feels rushed. There's a palpable sense of creative energy in the film and you can see here how the young director was using this project as a stepping stone towards bigger things (his next project would be Desperado and it pretty much solidified his career).
In terms of the visuals, Rodriquez's film looks good considering its budget and shooting schedule. There are some issues with the color and gloss stemming back to a lab error (some color correction looks to have been done for this transfer) but that's plenty easy to look past when the movie is as well put together as this one is here. The film is edited with a great rhythm and set to an equally great soundtrack full of period sounding rock n roll that fits right in with the rebellious nature of the film and its lead. On top of that, fans of vintage cars will enjoy how well the automobiles in this movie are shot and just how prominently they're featured.
Performance wise, there's a lot to love and little to complain about. Selma Hayek is stunningly beautiful in the role that proved she was good enough to play the female lead in Desperado (the reason Rodriguez cast her in the part). She's sexy and cool and slick and just a little bit dangerous and she makes for quite the femme fatale. She shares some great chemistry with David Arquette, who has probably never played a better role than this in the rest of his career. He's great as Dude, the right mix of danger and anger but tempered with a legitimate sense of cool. Cigarette constantly glued to his lip and hair greased back just right, he's ever cool character to ever appear in a JD film and a little bit more all rolled into one bad ass leather jacket. John Hawkes and Jason Wiles aren't quite as memorable but they're good here too, while the criminally underrated William Sadler turns out to be a bit of a scene stealer this time around, playing the tough guy sheriff with plenty of spirit.
More than just a mish-mash of fifties bad buy movies, Roadracers mixes interesting elements from paranoid small town films like The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (which is shows a clip from - and watch for a small part played by that film's Kevin McCarthy!) the film winds up taking a lot of what was fun about the fifties movies that it pay homage to and giving those elements new life and new energy. It's not a flawless film, there are times where the film wears its low budget roots on its sleeve, but don't let that dismay you. Rodriguez's considerable talents are in full swing here and he's got a great cast with him along for the ride.
Roadracers looks good on Blu-ray in 1.78.1 widescreen courtesy of the AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer. It's not the 'be all, end all' of high definition video but it offers good detail and nice color reproduction. A few shots look softer than others but overall detail is pretty pleasing to the eye and color reproduction looks good, if rarely exceptional. Black levels are strong but not quite inky black while some shimmer is apparent. Mild print damage pops up in a few spots but it's never really distracting and there aren't any obvious issues with compression artifacts, macroblocking, heavy edge enhancement or noise reduction. For a low budget film offered up on a budget label, most folks will be pretty pleased with how the movie translates to Blu-ray. Again, it's not a mindblower, but overall it is quite solid.
Audio options are offered in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio and in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, both tracks in English with no alternate language subtitles or closed captions provided. The DTS-HD mix is, not surprisingly, the superior of the two options as it's just got a lot more punch and power behind it, particularly when the soundtrack kicks in. Dialogue is well balanced, clean, clear and easy to follow and the levels are well balanced. Though never as aggressive as a newer and more action intensive film might be the mix does make frequent and noteworthy use of the surround channels throughout the film to help build some nice atmosphere and enhance the viewing experience. This tracks shapes up quite well, all things considered.
Extras on the disc start off with a commentary track from writer/director Robert Rodriguez who is as lively and enthusiastic here as he is on his other commentaries. He talks about the perils of working on a low budget film like this, the problems frequently caused by time restraints, what it was like making this picture after El Mariachi and some interesting differences between the two shoots, casting, locations, themes and ideas that didn't make it into the final film and quite a bit more. As usual, he makes for a great listen and offers up some interesting stories from the trenches with a good sense of humor and a lot of interesting anecdotes.
Aside from that, Echobridge have also included a standard definition featurette entitled Ten Minute Film School: The Making of A Degenerate Hot Rod Flick in which Rodriguez covers some of the same topics as he touches on in the commentary. He also talks about why he chose to use Selma Hayek in the movie, some of the more difficult aspects of the production, what it was like working with Arquette on the film and a fair bit more. Menus and chapter stops are also provided - there's no trailer included for the feature, unfortunately.
Well acted and really well directed, Roadracers has got to be Rodriguez's most underappreciated film, partially because it never really got a proper North American DVD release during the boom years of the format. Well, better late than never, Echobridge have stepped up to the plate and served it up on Blu-ray and the results are pretty good. The transfer isn't going to floor you and the audio won't knock you through the back wall but it looks and sounds very good and contains two great extras as well. The movie itself holds up nicely and this disc comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.