It's easy to see why Hollywood went berserk over El Mariachi. Produced for the now-legendary sum of $7,000, Austin-based filmmaker Robert Rodriguez' fable of a guitar player caught in a border town war between rival drug gangs wasn't a revelatory piece of cinematic art. It was just a bunch of shootouts, sight gags, and flirty romantic interludes. But Rodriguez assembled them with astonishing flair, and proved he understood movie storytelling in a fundamental way that often eludes directors with bigger budgets.
Desperado, Rodriguez' stand-alone sort-of-sequel, isn't better or worse than El Mariachi. It's just a hell of a lot more expensive--which means that when you're confronted with a dud scene or a plot hole the size of Tijuana, you don't cut the director quite as much slack.
But even when the plot makes no sense whatsoever, the director's stylish swagger keeps you riveted. Desperado's $7 million budget might be chicken feed in Hollywood terms (it'd pay about a third of Sylvester Stallone's current asking price) yet it's sufficient to buy the frugal Rodriguez the year's most audacious action sequences, plus gorgeously sooty cinematography by Guillermo Navarro, a killer soundtrack, and a smoldering English-language star turn by Spanish megahunk Antonio Banderas.
As in most action pictures, the plot is a pretext for mayhem. A gringo drifter (Steve Buscemi) enters a cantina full of rough characters and tells them the very scary story of a mysterious mariachi player (Banderas) with a guitar case full of guns. He has a vendetta against a local druglord named Bucho (Joachim de Almeida), whose underlings killed his sweetheart. He just wiped out a dozen foes in a neighboring town. And he's headed this way--Duck!
After a terrifying close-quarters shootout in a bar--during which just about every interesting character Rodriguez introduced gets riddled with bullets--the Mariachi is wounded, and is nursed back to health by a beautiful bookstore owner (played by doe-eyed, busty Mexican actress Selma Hayek--one of the few people on earth beautiful enough to share the screen with Banderas).
The rest of the movie is a series of gunfights, love scenes, humorous interludes, and wild escapes, all filmed in the same deliriously hyperreal manner. The Mariachi eliminates dozens of foes, accumulating stigmata like so much spare change. But like Brandon Lee's messianic antihero in The Crow, his beauty and righteousness make him invincible. (When the Mariachi prays, it's always in front of a mirror--which, considering how Christlike he is, comes off as self-worship.)
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When you lay down six bucks for a movie titled Desperado, you expect an Olympic-caliber display of cinematic ass-kicking. And in scene after scene, Rodriguez delivers the goods--especially during a close-quarters encounter between Bucho's men and a scuzzy, blade-tossing Colombian assassin they've mistaken for the Mariachi, which ranks as one of the craziest action set pieces I've ever seen. The assassin wears a vest adorned with dozens of tiny throwing knives; as he scampers around, above, and beneath the henchmen's limo, dodging point-blank gunshots and picking off enemies one by one, Rodriguez generates an aura of visceral fear and excitement that's almost unbearable.
Unfortunately, Rodriguez' plot doesn't have any kind of melodramatic arc. Unlike The Last of the Mohicans or Hard-Boiled or even a halfway-decent Bruce Lee movie, it doesn't build toward catharsis; it just stumbles along to an oddly abrupt finale that's both unmotivated and unsatisfying. And Rodriguez' penchant for killing off endearing minor characters seems indicative not of a nihilistic sensibility, but a short attention span. (The big sex scene is another tipoff--a perfunctory, Zalman King-style series of music video quick-dissolves between burning candles and copulating bodies. It sells carnal pleasure the way TV ads sell cars--with pointless glitz, and in less than 30 seconds.)
Rodriguez--who's credited as writer, director, producer, editor, and camera operator--is a primally gifted imagemaker born with a viewfinder in his brain. And Banderas is a sympathetic and convincing action icon who combines Chow Yun-Fat's cocky charm, Jean-Claude Van Damme's macho physicality, and Harrison Ford's earthy Average-Guyness. He's the kind of hero who blows away a whole roomful of foes, then gasps with relief that he's still alive. But as comic-book enjoyable as it is, the film promises more than it delivers, because it has the structure of a genuine spiritual journey. It's on this level that Desperado falls flat. The plot is about a man who has lost his humanity and must wander a bloodthirsty wasteland to rediscover it--a theme many great action pictures have explored with ferocious dramatic conviction, from Ride the High Country and For a Few Dollars More through The Road Warrior and The Killer. Rodriguez flirts with mythic elements, but unlike Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, and other master filmmakers, he lacks the nerve to go all the way with them. He doesn't find a way to torque up the picture's themes and emotions so they match his marvelously overheated action scenes.
Rodriguez' story has everything: music, murder, guilt, faith, vengeance, love, redemption. He has the talent and vision to create a bold, perverse, memorable popcorn epic, and a leading man who's charismatic enough to lead us through it. But the end result is an amusing and spectacularly violent shaggy-dog story--a bunch of setups but no punchline. Desperado has blood and thunder aplenty. What's missing is soul.