To some, the original 1996 film version of “From Dusk Till Dawn” is an entertaining B movie. It’s a jumping off point for a young George Clooney as a leading man and an actor who makes the right connections. It’s the start of a fruitful collaboration between two important modern filmmakers. To some it’s just a description of the SXSW night life. But to Robert Rodriguez, it’s so much more.
“Quentin [Tarantino] writes the best characters in the world,” Rodriguez said at the post-screening Q&A for the first episode of “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series.” “To have his characters for the first time on television, you’ve got to give them room to breathe and live.”
At a nearly full Vimeo theater Saturday afternoon, Rodriguez presented the first original scripted series for the writer/director’s recently launched El Rey Network. While “From Dusk Till Dawn” didn’t exactly blow the doors off the convention center, the first episode contains everything the director’s die hard fans could be looking forward to seeing every week instead of every other year: colorful language, shootouts and a considerable amount of attitude.
Rodriguez — who wrote, produced and directed the pilot — did his best Tarantino impression while introducing the film, squinting his face together and making his voice more nasally, but unfortunately his efforts to replicate the director’s trademarked casual, sprawling dialogue weren’t as effective. There are highlights — the time-shifting pilot draws focus to a few pieces of Texas slang the director got just right (mainly with Don Johnson’s character, Texas Ranger Earl McGraw), but a few too many lines that try to sound cool come across forced. To be fair, I’ve felt this way about most of Rodriguez’s work (the notable exception being “Sin City,” which oozes cool from start to finish). Fans may disagree or even argue the duds are intentional, meant to be taken as camp.
Yet Rodriguez’s script isn’t aided by all of his actors, notably two young faces. The aforementioned Johnson knocks his role out of the park, and D.J. Cotrona as one of the Gecko brothers (Seth) is commanding with an developing level of star power. It’s their partners that let them down, both as characters and thespians.
Taking place during a standoff at a liquor shop between two Texas Rangers and the fugitive Gecko brothers, the pilot episode sees McGraw get shot after the other Gecko brother, Richie, loses his cool. A showdown between McGraw’s partner Freddie and the brothers ensues while Johnson lays between them perhaps on his last breath. Freddie, as played by Jesse Garcia, isn’t exactly unappealing. He’s got a bit of a baby face, with only a touch of scruff to accent his youthful features. It aides the character early on, but becomes a detriment when he’s asked to take on a more impassioned persona.
During the post-screening Q&A, Rodriguez praised Zane Holtz for his portrayal of the mentally disturbed Richie. “This guy’s really good. He’s just really freaking good,” Rodriguez said about the young actor, coincidentally from “Vampires Suck.” “And he would give me so many different versions because I wasn’t sure as a director how this character will play these moments. He would give me so many different variations I could kind of choose from that.”
This is exactly how the performance reads on screen, except all those variations were mixed up by the editor. Richie has no consistency — a fine quality for a wild card gunman, but not for an actor’s portrayal of one. Holtz may have done exactly what his director asked of him, but what’s on screen is uneven and unconvincing. Richie is big and small, hot and cold, wild and tame. He’s an interesting character in theory, but the right tone needs to be struck either on set or in the editing room.
Much of the large ensemble wasn’t seen in the pilot episode. Robert Patrick was the biggest name not yet unveiled, but the actor still showed up for the screening and said he considered himself “part of the Rodriguez family, part of the Troublemaker family” during the Q&A. Danny Trejo (aka “Machete”) was also at the Vimeo Theater, even though he doesn’t appear in the show. “Danny’s just always here,” the director teased. “He’s not even in the show. He’s here supporting. We’re going to do something much bigger with him in the next season.”
Only one episode in, it’s hard to call “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series” disappointing. It needs time to mature, and it sounds like Rodriguez will be behind it for a while, allowing it to do just that (he said he’d heard the writers talking plot development “as long as season five”). A clip reel after the credits rolled showed a few exciting upcoming scenes including some bloody-faced vampires hunting their prey, and the first episode did set up a classic western narrative. For the casual viewer, though, it will all come down to whether or not these early speed bumps are ironed out.