Ever since writer/director Robert Rodriguez broke out with his DIY action thriller El Mariachi in 1992, the quality of his output has been wildly erratic. I like many of his movies, but others repel me with great force.
Rodriguez's maverick approach to filmmaking makes him easy to like as a director - he works outside the Hollywood system at his own studios in Austin, Texas, and is intimately involved in all aspects of production on his films.
But while his unique status as the ringleader of a mini movie empire may have lead to such iconic movies as Sin City, it has also resulted in turds like The Adventures Of Shark Boy and Lava Girl.
This week sees the release of his latest, Machete Kills - the follow-up to his gonzo 2010 genre throwback Machete.
I loved Machete, but Machete Kills tried my patience. It just didn't carry me along like the original. Self-indulgence can be a wonderful thing in movies, but it doesn't always result in a fun viewing experience.
It feels positively sacrilegious to suggest this, but sometimes I think Rodriguez might benefit from working more within the studio system. I'm all for directors following their passion, but the film-lover in me is curious to see what kind of movie would result if there's somebody there to say "no" to Rodriguez.
Watching Machete Kills has me once again questioning whether or not I can fully believe in Rodriguez as a filmmaker.
To answer this question I posed to myself, I have decided to assess his (cinematically-released) work, movie-by-movie, and judge whether or not each film shows him to be a genius, or a madman.
Disclaimer: Many great directors could easily be described as madmen - John Ford, Alfred Hitchock, Hal Ashby, Paul Verhoeven, Werner Herzog. I use the term here to refer specifically to instances when Rodriguez overloaded a particular film with unpalatable crapulence.
El Mariachi (1992)
How can you not love this scrappy little wonder? Rodriguez's love for classic action tropes came through loud and clear in his debut film, but he also showed a desire to push the boundaries of the genre in new and gritty ways.
Rodriguez directed this studio-backed El Mariachi remake/sequel after taking time out to hone his major filmmaking nous with a 50s throwback car-racing movie made for cable TV. His increased abilities are evident in the agile action western that also introduced Antonio Banderas to English-speaking audiences. Desperado fulfilled the potential of El Mariachi, but promised even greater achievements to come.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
His second collaboration with "best friend" Quentin Tarantino (after directing one segment of 1995's forgettable anthology film Four Rooms) is a shallow but lively genre mashup. Its legacy has been overshadowed by direct-to-video sequels and Tarantino's lack of acting skills, but From Dusk Till Dawn holds up as a nasty little thriller with awesome black comedy moments. As entertaining as it remains, it still seems more like a diversion than a film either the co-writer/co-star (QT) or the director (RR) really cared about.
The Faculty (1998)
The closest thing to a straight studio film Rodriguez has ever directed, The Faculty was marketed as yet another Scream clone, but has much more in common with one of my favourite movies, the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which you should totally see if you never have. The Faculty shows how Rodriguez's grungy flair can come through loud and clear in a more straightfoward genre story. I have a soft spot for this movie.
Spy Kids (2001)
I got very excited when I heard Rodriguez was going to make a family-friendly adventure - he grew up on the same 80s movies that I did, and I was confident his effort would hold up to the likes of The Goonies or D.A.R.Y.L. Alas, it was a giant turd. RR's homemade CGI effects began showing up in this film, and they are distractingly terrible. Nose-picking has far too large a role to play. It's all fine and dandy to want to make films for your kids, but this was just an icky mess.
Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (2002)
More terrible CGI. More clumsy storytelling over-reliant on cameos. It feels churlish to rag on a kiddie film, but these seemed like they were slapped together at the last minute. Still, this gets points for bringing Ricardo Montalban (Armando from Conquest of the Planet of The Apes) into the fold.
Spy Kids 3D: Game Over (2003)
Every time a new Spy Kids movie was released, I held out hope that it might represent a return to form for Rodriguez. But even Sly Stallone as the villain couldn't get me onboard for this one. With the film set inside a digital world, the home-cooked CGI was now front and centre and as crummy as ever.
Once Upon a Time In Mexico (2003)
Presented as the third film in the El Mariachi trilogy, this film was an opportunity for Rodriguez to show the people who loved his early, more violent films that he still had something to offer as a bad-ass director. But for all its potential (and stellar cast), I really struggled with Once Upon a Time In Mexico. The director's affinity for digital filmmaking started to impact his "regular" films here - the explosions all look like ripe tomatoes. To me, this served as a strong argument against digital filmmaking when it was released - luckily Michael Mann's Collateral came out the next year and provided just as strong an argument for the technique. By the time Once Upon a Time In Mexico came along, Rodriguez's stellar early work was becoming a distant memory. I'd pretty much given up on him ever making anything cool again by this point.
Sin City (2005)
Just when I'd written him off, Rodriguez comes back hard with his greatest ever movie - an instantly iconic adaptation of Frank Miller's legendary noir comic book that introduced a whole new visual pallette to mainstream cinema.
Rodriguez resigned from the Director's Guild when he made Sin City so he could creded Miller as co-director on the film. That kicked off a skerfuffle which resulted in Rodriguez not directing the film that eventually ended up being made in 2010 as John Carter. Although this incident undoubtedly strengthened Rodriguez's independent resolve, I still wonder what his version of the Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation might've looked like. Anyway, Sin City blew open the stylistic possibilities of the modern genre film, and while the films it inspired haven't always been great (The Spirit - oy vey), it remains a landmark achievement. Suddenly everything seemed possible again for RR ...
Planet Terror (2007)
Every film lover on the planet got feverishly excited when Grindhouse was announced, but the double-feature's lack of success at the US box office resulted in the two films being split up for international release. And Rodriguez's segement Planet Terror didn't even come out at the cinema in New Zealand! While not nearly as successful an exercise as Sin City, Planet Terror nevertheless demonstrated a re-committment to bad-assery on Rodriguez's part. It's an extremely odd film (the stuff with the kid and the gun really wierded me out, as did QT's melting scrotum) and I still can't decide if this or Death Proof is the better film. There was definitely a sense that neither movie lived up to their potential.
Verdict: Even split between Madman and Genius.
Naturally, Rodriguez followed it up with yet another kids movie. Although there is once again far too much focus on boogers, I found this slightly more palatable than RR's other family-friendly movies. Still, I couldn't determine why it existed. How many kids movies does this guy need to make? Does anyone really grow up aspiring to be a family friendly filmmaker?
I absolutely loved Machete - it was the film Grindhouse should've been in my eyes. Although RR's proclivity for CGI gun shots and bullet wounds threatened to distract me, I was swept up in the witty craziness of the film. Here was an example of RR's self-indulgence resulting in an awesome movie.
Spy Kids 4: All The Time In The World (2011)
Okay I haven't seen this. I just couldn't do it. All respect to RR's kiddie empire, but a guy can only handle so many snot jokes.
Machete Kills (2013)
As previously mentioned, this film was a disappointment for me. The digital bullets and wounds thing is now completely out of control, and detracts significantly from the action. All the gun battles are mimed, and it shows. This film relies on its stunt-casting (Charlie Sheen aka Carlos Estevez; Mel Gibson) and fails to feature anything resembling a coherent through-line. The scuzziness of the Spy Kids movies now seems to be infecting RR's more adult-oriented output. Blerg.
So by this wholly scientific assessment, Robert Rodriguez is more of a madman (Score: 8.5) than a genius (Score: 6.5).
But then again, I never saw Spy Kids 4, so I should probably give that the benefit of the doubt. And it feels strangely Scrooge-like to hate on all these kids movies. Plus the finally-actually-happening Sin City sequel will probably square everything up nicely.
And he seems like a pretty awesome dude you can't help but admire. So despite my findings here, I still consider him a genius. I should probably give Once Upon a Time In Mexico another shot.
* Agree/disagree? Big Rodriguez fan? Remember D.A.R.Y.L.? I loved that little guy. Comment Below!