When Robert Rodriguez (The Faculty) burst onto the scene with the micro-budgeted El Mariachi in 1992, it was clear to the entire film loving world that despite that film’s lack of polish, Rodriguez was going to soon be a major player in stylistic film-making. Cue three years later with his debut studio feature, Desperado, and Rodriguez shot himself into alternative superstardom. I hadn’t seen Desperado in probably over ten years before I watched it for this blog, and I had completely forgotten that Desperado might be the greatest B-movie ever made.
Working within the realm of mythic folk heroes, neo-Westerns, and John Woo action crime thrillers, Desperado is such an astonishing second effort that one can only imagine what Rodriguez could have done on El Mariachi if he’d had more than $7,000 to make the film. Understanding that I’m in the vast minority here with regards to how highly I now hold this film, I can name few other action films that drip with so much wit, playfulness, and energy as Desperado. If Rodriguez had kept this type of quality up his entire career, he could have been as important to the industry as his good friend Quentin Tarantino.
Desperado is a unique film in that it is both a sequel to the original El Mariachi as well as a sort of spiritual remake in that it’s the kind of movie Rodriguez wanted to make but didn’t have the money back in 1992 which is why elements of the plot feel somewhat familiar. Replacing the first film’s Carlos Gallardo, Antiono Banderas (Puss in Boots) plays the unnamed El Mariachi. Several years after witnessing the murder of the woman he loved and getting shot through the hand, El Mariachi is a whirlwind force of justice in the small border towns between the US and Mexico dispensing vigilante justice on the drug crews that were responsible for the murder of his love.
With the help of his partner Buscemi (Interview‘s Steve Buscemi), El Mariachi has attained a mythic status in the haunts of the Mexican drug dealers including a bar secretly run for the powerful cartel head Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida). Bucho was the real head of the cartel that killed El Mariachi’s lover, and El Mariachi believes that Bucho is the last man standing in the way of his quest for vengeance. But when El Mariachi meets the beautiful Carolina (Salma Hayek) as well as a young boy who wants to learn the guitar, he must decide what he will sacrifice to get his revenge.
Quentin Tarantino shows up in this film (Desperado predates their partnership for From Dusk Til Dawn by only a year), and it’s clear that Tarantino’s early work was having on influence on Rodriguez’s writing (and would have an influence for years to come). In the film’s brilliant opening segment, Buscemi goes to the bad guy bar (with the great Cheech Marin in a small bit part) to put the fear of El Mariachi in these criminals (and to see if they recognize El Bucho’s name). It’s one long, extended story told by Buscemi (with visual accompaniment), but it adds to the mythic nature of the film as well as its own awareness of its pulpy roots.
What makes Desperado great though (even in a way that Tarantino’s later works like Django Unchained fail to achieve) is that it is entirely self-aware without winking at the audience. Desperado knows it’s an action movie where Antonio Banderas blows drug dealers across rooms while duel-wielding shotgun-pistols (not making that up) and owns a cod-piece machine gun. And it knows that it can’t take itself too seriously under that premise. But, Desperado manages to walk that balancing act of being self-aware and tongue-in-cheek without playing every moment for laugh (though I must admit that I was cackling with glee during some of the film’s more ridiculous moments).
Antonio Banderas has become more of a caricature than a legitimate actor over the last ten years, but Desperado reminds me of why he had the potential to become such an exciting figure (alongside his great, smaller performance in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia). El Mariachi is larger than life. He’s essentially a comic book superhero thrown into the dusty streets of Mexico fighting knife-throwing psychopaths (a memorable and early role for Danny Trejo) and Mexican drug dealers. And Antonio Banderas has all the cocksure bravura and swagger (with just the right sensitivity) to nail the role.
The movie loses just a little bit of its special energy and insanity in the final act. A plot twist arrives totally out of nowhere that feels a little too “wink wink” unless it too was played straight in which case it was poor writing for entirely different reasons. The romance between El Mariachi and Carolina doesn’t cohere in a plot sense though the sizzling sexual chemistry between Banderas and Hayek was so intense that it threatened to derail the film. They have a love scene that is among the absolute sexiest in mainstream cinema. Desperado might not be quite perfect, but as far as B-movies go, it’s more than you could ever hope for.
Final Score: A-