The Five Best Films Robert Rodriguez Never Made

As a general rule of thumb, Hollywood doesn’t have a lot to offer Robert Rodriguez. The writer-director has spent the last decade playing in the sandboxes he helped create. From the From Dusk Til Dawn television series to Sin City and Machete sequels, Rodriguez seems perfectly happy exploring his cinematic universes at Austin’s Troublemaker Studios.

Then again, when you make movies the way that Rodriguez does, you’re bound to be invited to Los Angeles for the occasional lunch. Rodriguez is particularly adept at working in front of green screens — sometimes to the point of excess — a talent that will always be in high demand for effects-driven summer movies. This week, we look back at some of the would-be blockbusters that almost managed to lure this Hollywood outsider back inside the studio system.

Fire and Ice (2010)

Given his background as a college cartoonist, it should come as no surprise that Rodriguez has a deep love of all things animation. In 2010, Rodriguez shared that he had acquired the rights for Fire and Ice, a live-action adaptation of the 1983 film by renowned animator Ralph Bakshi. In the interview, Rodriguez admits that, as he did with Sin City, he was able to negotiate for the film rights directly with the original creator. “I control the rights to this one, he explained, “So it’s actually in my power to set it up and get it made, which wasn’t the case on other projects.”

Like the original, this version of Fire and Ice would tell the ancient story of a young warrior who seeks revenge on an evil sorceress for the death of his entire village. Rodriguez was confident that this film would be the project to follow Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, telling The Hollywood Reporter in 2012 that his script was “70 percent there.” Progress seems to have stalled out on Rodriguez’s adaptation, but given his status as the rights holder, this may be the one project on this list that never goes away entirely.

Heavy Metal (2011)

But Fire and Ice wasn’t the only ’80s animated classic Rodriguez had his eyes on; that distinction also belongs to the 1981 anthology epic Heavy Metal. Before Rodriguez optioned the film rights from magazine publisher Kevin Eastman, the project had previously been in the hands of David Fincher, who had hoped to invite an impressive group of filmmakers — including Zack Snyder, Gore Verbinski, and Guillermo del Toro (!) — to each direct a short segment.

When that project fell through, Rodriguez swooped in and decided to keep this anthology approach in his own interpretation. “I just love the idea of artists from all over the world coming to show their best work,” Rodriguez told that year’s Comic-Con audience, even hosting a competition at Austin-based Badass Digest (now Birth.Movies.Death) to identify new artists for the project. By 2014, the conversation had pivoted to television, with Rodriguez suggesting that his El Rey Network would be the perfect landing spot for a Heavy Metal series. The project would linger for years before fading into obscurity in the latter half of the decade.

Jonny Quest (2015)

Who better to direct an adventure film aimed at families than the creator of Spy Kids? Rodriguez’s kid-friendly franchise has grossed more than $550 million worldwide, so it makes complete sense that Warner Bros. would ask the director to tackle their big-screen adaptation of the popular animated Hanna-Barbera series. In 2015, The Hollywood Reporter shared the news that Rodriguez would direct and co-write the film alongside veteran screenwriter — and infamous anti-vaxxer, lest any of us forget — Terry Rossio.

For Rodriguez, the hook was that he could play things a little straighter than he did with the Spy Kids movies. “Imagine you’re a kid and James Bond is your bodyguard and your dad is Indiana Jones,” he told /Film that July. “It’s one of those movies and you just happen to be in it.” Rodriguez and Rossio had even combined to write a dynamic script; Forbes contributor Mark Hughes read a version of their work in 2016 and hailed it as “terrifically fun screenplay that is easy to envision as a big, successful summer popcorn flick.” Despite all this, Rodriguez quietly left the project about the same time, paving the way for The Lego Batman director Chris McKay to take over in 2018.

Escape From New York (2017)

Few people may be itching for a remake of John Carpenter’s classic science-fiction film, but the enduring success of the original has kept Escape From New York active in the rumor mill for years. In 2017, it was announced that Rodriguez would direct the latest attempt at a remake for 20th Century Fox. To hear insiders describe it, the studio was looking to launch a Planet of the Apes-esque franchise with Rodriguez at the helm. The film even had the blessing of Carpenter himself; in an interview with IndieWire, screenwriter Neil Cross (Luther) had been given whatever passes for the filmmaker’s “seal of approval” upon submitting his script for consideration.

Cross’s writing may have represented a pretty significant departure from the original — The Wrap made a note of several significant changes in 2016, including the lack of a supermax prison on the island of Manhattan — but it, along with Rodriguez, would be turned out in favor of Upgrade director Leigh Whannell’s new take on the franchise.

“Untitled Troublemaker Crossover Film” (2018)

For years now, fans have been picking up on the hints that Rodriguez’s films may exist in a single convoluted timeline or possibly even share one with the works of Quentin Tarantino. Given that shared cinematic universes are all the rage right now, it was only a matter of time before someone put Rodriguez on the spot and asked if he would ever bring his various franchises into one impressive crossover film. In a 2018 interview with CinemaBlend, the filmmaker admitted that he’d had at least a few conversations about the possibility of a crossover film, noting that he was definitely “aware of the connections all the characters could have in that world, in their own range of kind of larger than life superheroes.”

According to Rodriguez, he had even been pitched the idea to a comic company and gotten an enthusiastic response, suggesting that any future Troublemaker crossover event would exist as panels long before it found its way to the big screen. Still, with M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass grossing $200 million worldwide, it’s hard not to imagine a situation where some studio gives Rodriguez a nudge.

Matthew Monagle: @labsplice Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.