When movies are shot on paper-thin budgets but go on to be massive successes anyway, it gives heart to independent film-makers around the world that you don’t need a studio-sized checkbook to make an appealing movie that others will want to see. Whether that’s Paranormal Activity, Clerks, or The Blair Witch Project, there are plenty of great examples of accomplishing a lot with very little (Paranormal Activity was first shot in 2007 on a $15,000 budget and now it’s one of the most profitable films of all time). 1992’s El Mariachi was very profitable if not a huge box office smash (it made around $2 million compared to the $7,000 it required to shoot it), but it’s success is notable for an entirely different reason. With a movie financed almost entirely by taking part in a medical research study, Robert Rodriguez (The Faculty) shot himself to international superstardom as a filmmaker and it only got better from this impressive debut.
Although it will become somewhat clear that I have nothing but the utmost respect for Robert Rodriguez and El Mariachi, that respect is primarily related to how professional this film is able to feel despite the fact that Rodriguez had never made a feature-length film before, shot the movie entirely in single takes, and made it for a grand total of $7,000. Because, at the end of the day, El Mariachi is a B-movie at it’s heart (though, let’s face it, all of Rodriguez’s films are), and if this same movie were made on a budget of over half a million dollars, people would probably laugh in his face. But, the film was shot for $7,000 and for someone who struggled to shoot a five minute short film on a literal $0 budget with film-making tools given to me for free, it’s impressive to an absurd degree that Rodriguez was able to make this film.
When a white gangster, Moco (Peter Marquardt) in Mexico double-crosses a vengeance-fueled Mexican hit man, Azul (Reinol Martinez), an all-out war breaks out between Moco’s men and the one-man death army known as Azul. Azul’s MO is to wander around as a traveling Mariachi but he secretly keeps his stash of weapons hidden inside his guitar case to be able to be pulled out at a moment’s notice. And this spells trouble when an actually mariachi, known only in the film as El Mariachi (Carlos Gallardo), stumbles into town just looking for a job and a place to play his music. But when a case of mistaken identity leads to El Mariachi being mistaken for Azul, El Mariachi becomes the prime target of Moco’s men and though he flees to the safety of a saloon ran by the beautiful Domino (Consuelo Gomez), that only spells more trouble for himself and his unwilling savior.
I won’t waste your time harping on any of the performances of the principal actors because none of them are worth praise (though Carlos Gallardo seemed like he had potential. It was a shame his career never really took off after this film). Instead, what’s impressive is Rodriguez’s ability to tell a mostly compelling action story (that was a fun spin on the classic North by Northwest tale of mistaken identity) with so few tools at his disposal. Even this early on, Rodriguez’s talents as a pop auteur were on full display and even as a neophyte, Rodriguez already had a mastery of pacing and editing. In fact, it’s the editing of the film that I often found the most impressive because as someone who’s written, directed, shot, and edited a film, editing is without question the hardest part.
I’ll keep this review extra short cause it’s been a couple days since I’ve watched it and other than being a feat of budget wizardry, there’s not a hell of a lot to say about El Mariachi other than how enjoyable it remains even 21 years later. There’s nothing deep about this movie. It’s an action movie centered around a case of mistaken identity that happens to feature a surprisingly sympathetic hero and love interest. If you aren’t a fan of B-Action films, knowing that Robert Rodriguez made this movie on a shoe-string budget won’t make you like it more. But, for those who have a soft spot in their heart for camp, El Mariachi is a delightful exercise in independent film-making and a fascinating insight into the formative years of a star who is one of the most talented popcorn filmmakers out there today.
Final Score: B