With a career going back to 1992’s El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez is the kind of film maker that is easy to admire for his creativity and even easier to hate because he seems to do whatever he pleases and gets away with it, a cult director who has crossed over to achieve mainstream success. As well as unaccredited work on Pulp Fiction for the scenes where principal director Quentin Tarantino was on camera playing Jimmy Dimmick, Rodriguez is also responsible for Desperado, The Faculty, Spy Kids and its sequels, Planet Terror (originally planned as a “double feature” along with Tarantino’s Death Proof), the Machete films with Danny Trejo and was a co-director on Sin City and its upcoming sequel.
Released in January 1996, From Dusk Till Dawn told the cheery tale of two criminal brothers escaping to Mexico by taking a family hostage. Things tend to go awry in these situations and the group end up at a bar populated by an assortment of unusual characters and inhabited by ravenous vampires. Tarantino wrote the script, while Rodriguez directed. Starring George Clooney at the height of his ER fame and Tarantino as the psychopathic Gecko brothers, Seth and Richie, it nevertheless wasn’t a particularly successful movie. Rounding out the cast were Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Salma Hayek, Danny Trejo and the man who introduced millions of teenagers to the recreational use of herbs, Cheech Marin.
A much loved genre mash-up of horror and crime thriller which is repeatedly watchable, despite the failure to perform at the box office it achieved cult classic status, spawning two sequels (Texas Blood Money in 1999 and The Hangman’s Daughter in 2000.
On the back of his success elsewhere, in 2013 Rodriguez launched his own television channel, El Rey, responding to political pressure for more minority owned channels in America, with the main hook the announcement that From Dusk Till Dawn was to be developed as a television series. Of all the films that Rodriguez has been involved in this was the natural choice. The mission statement of El Rey was to offer programming for a neglected Latino audience with English language entertainment but without marginalising viewers who weren’t Latino. From Dusk Till Dawn fills the criteria quite nicely, since the majority of the story takes place in Mexico yet featuring English speaking principal characters.
With the first episode airing on El Rey on March 18th and made available on Netflix a day later, the show is advertised as a “Netflix Original” but unlike House of Cards and Hemlock Grove it’s not actually produced by Netflix. While those shows were released as whole seasons for consumption as fast as the viewer demanded, this model is more akin to the traditional broadcast model followed by Breaking Bad, one episode released each week the day after the original network broadcast.
With only the pilot available so far, written and directed by Rodriguez himself, the series is an expanded version of the movie but is sticking closely to the format and plot of the film, though Rodriguez has stated his intention to delve into the Mesoamerican mythology of the vampires who, for reasons which have yet to be explained in the series, have decided to open up a bar called the Titty Twister and feast on the clientele, although this might not promote regular cash flow, with repeat business probably not featuring in their business plans since no customer ever leaves.
The only significant deviation from the original is a short and creepy voodoo-style ritual which sees a young woman thrown into grave of snakes. Beyond this scene and a few flashes courtesy of Richie Gecko (originally played by Quentin Tarantino and now Zane Holtz) the episode is free of the supernatural, and viewers familiar with the film expecting profound differences will be disappointed.
Where in the film the characters spent less than ten minutes at Benny’s World of Liquor, aside from a few flashbacks to expand the characters it is the setting for the majority of the pilot episode. Richie is still violently unstable whilst Seth (previously George Clooney, now D J Cotrona) is the more measured professional criminal who only reluctantly kills people when his brother has created a situation where it is unavoidable, which Richie has an unfortunate habit of doing.
Comparison of D J Cotrona and Clooney is unavoidable, both because Clooney was so good in the role and because Cotrona is doing his best to channel that performance from eighteen years ago in everything from the way he tilts his head as he speaks to his dress sense and even the way that he holds his gun, nor is he encouraged to make the role his own by a script which lifts dialogue directly from the original script, his “Everybody be cool. You… be cool” moment being an example.
Having appeared in a few films and television series but nothing of prominence other than GI Joe: Retaliation in 2013, although he had been cast as Superman in an attempt to bring the Justice League to the big screen in 2008 which was cancelled in the wake of the writers’ strike of that year, pitting Cotrona directly against one of the most respected actors and directors of modern American cinema is deeply unfair to Cotrona, for despite being a perfectly good actor, he is no George Clooney.
It could be argued that From Dusk Till Dawn is the only role where Tarantino put in a good performance, his understated and childlike Richie genuinely scary and his chemistry with Clooney the key relationship of the film. Former model Zane Holtz is a departure from the perpetually oily Tarantino in that he’s a good looking chap but has even less experience than Cotrona and so far is the weakest of the cast, the banter with Seth lacking the brotherly love in the original, coming off as weird when he should be menacing, though this may be a conscious decision to make the now ongoing character less objectionable and misogynist.
The highlight of the episode is former Miami Vice star Don Johnson’s Texas Ranger Earl McGraw, a character who has appeared in a number of Rodriguez and Tarantino movies. Originally played by Michael Parks, most recently seen in another remake, We Are What We Are, Johnson borrows his speech mannerisms throughout. McGraw was a very minor character in the film, however, and Johnson expands the role with skill, making him memorable and sympathetic, though he’ serves little more purpose than to introduce his partner, Freddie Gonzales (Jesse Garcia), the main adversary for the Gecko brothers.
The bond between Earl and Freddie will, presumably, drive the pursuit from Benny’s World of Liquor into Mexico. Earl was flying solo in the film and Freddie is the only original character to appear in the series thus far, so the indication is that he will probably become important.
Whilst the original script was written by Tarantino this remake comes courtesy of Rodriguez, who doesn’t have the style or rhythm to replicate his friend’s recognisable patterns. The lines that are lifted directly from the movie script still hold up but the new scenes written for the episode that feel slightly off, like someone trying attempting to replicate the conversations that Tarantino characters have.
Despite the stated misgivings, the pilot episode was an enjoyable forty-five minutes, but it is built too closely on the popularity of the film, but hopefully the series will evolve and find its own original voice and style. Watching a scene expanded into an whole episode might be interesting once, but if production team don’t add new elements to the series it will rapidly become frustrating to see a film of less than two hours stretched to eight and a half without significant creative expansion.