Desperado (1995)

We continue El Mariachi March/Robert Rodriguez Month with the continuation of the El Mariachi trilogy. Leading me to say – if you haven’t seen El Mariachi and want to see it first, I recommend going to watch it now. This review will contain spoilers.  However, if you don’t care about El Mariachi, that’s okay as well because this film can stand on its own. So now that I have that out of the way: Here’s Desperado.

Set in the Modern Day (1995) in Mexico – our story starts with among the best opening ten minutes of cinema in history. Before truly beginning with our main character, El Mariachi (once played by co-producer Carlos Gallardo and now played by Antonio Banderas. Carlos plays a different Mariachi here. But not the Mariachi from the prequel). What are these ten minutes I mentioned? Steve Buscemi, more or less playing himself, walking into a bar run by Cheech Marin (from Cheech and Chong), and while drinking lukewarm beer, tells them the legend of the giant Mexican looking for the drug lord known as Bucho. The large Mexican walks into the bar, and you can’t see his face. In his hand is a familiar sight – a guitar case full of weapons. Within these few minutes, he makes these cynical, hardened Mexicans fear for everything they have while maintaining as much composure as possible. We receive everything we need to know about ‘El’ through this Mexican-Batman-Legend that has the underworld scared. We see El’s goal. To go after Bucho, who was Moco’s superior, and therefore the puppet-master behind the death of the woman he loved. Along the way, we enter what I could describe as a Gritty Mexican Alice In Wonderland, as the musician runs into some interesting circumstances.

Now to look at the guitar case to see what got the job done.

Compared to El Mariachi, this feels like a different film. For one thing, it received a $7 million budget, which is a little under one thousand times what El Mariachi cost, at $7,225. With this, we could say that Rodriguez was able to not only get the right kinds of faces for roles, but he also got some exceptional casting choices out of it. Even though he was only able to have them for a week each, Steve Buscemi and Cheech Marin were able to play very memorable and funny roles in this film as El’s ‘only friend’ and the Bartender. Antonio Banderas was already an experienced actor in Spain. His role as Armand in 1994’s Interview With The Vampire made him noticed. But this was, I think, his first starring role in America. Then, of course, Salma Hayek, who only had two Mexican film roles and a Made-For-TV film role up this point, became a star through this film (whether through her acting or her looks – I would say both). Then, of course, the legends that are Danny Trejo and Quentin Tarantino make for memorable scenes, which they both steal. Nobody has a more dangerous face than Trejo, and nobody does Tarantino-dialogue like Quentin Tarantino. Buscemi and Tarantino instantly made this film what I will call “Mid-’90s Cool”, and I might use that term more often from here on. The acting was well done and very stylised. It has the grit of a western with the fun of a comedy. Like, Die Hard with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. I might also add how many El Mariachi alumni have reappeared here. Consuelo Gomez as Domino, Peter Marquardt as Moco, and Jaime de Hoyos as Bigotón all reprise their roles for a dream scene. Believe it or not, in a Spaghetti Western fashion, Reinol Martinez (Azul) appears in a “blink and miss it” moment where he tells the boy with the guitar to scram. He’s playing a different role, and hopefully, he became a Doctor as he intended three years before.

The characters are all a combination of grit and charisma, and if they didn’t have anything interesting to say, they had a great face to tell you a bit about them. The villains are also much better. As significant as Moco was in El Mariachi, he doesn’t hold our interest on screen the way Bucho does. Bucho is brutal yet charming and funny. Like Top Dollar in the 1994 film The Crow…only with short hair and a white suit. We hear about Moco having a hold on the public, but he never leaves his home. Bucho on the other hand does. We see him blessing the public, and therefore he sustains them, while also being a Drug Lord…kind of like Pablo Escobar on a small scale. As part of the budget, the film has a lot more extras and fewer passers-by.

The story is a combination of fast-paced action, slowed down character moments, and manages to make small, seemingly pointless moments important. In this case, it’s the interactions between El Mariachi and the boy with the guitar. I love the urban legend route they took with the character, to the point that changing the actor almost made sense. El Mariachi is simply a tall Mexican with black clothes and a guitar case full of weapons. To some, Azul was El Mariachi, and to others it was Carlos Gallardo, and to other Antonio Banderas. Clint Eastwood changed names in the Dollars Trilogy, and El Mariachi changed faces. In a way, it’s quite brilliant. The action scenes were a lot more over the top and fun, and with the bigger budget, they managed to get a lot of cool moments in there. The plot is simple, but the dressing is a little messy – messy, but fun.

The Art style, Cinematography and Editing is a step up from El Mariachi. Focusing on what I could compare to Comic Book Violence. I’ve mentioned the fantastic action scenes. Today they live up to their flashy aesthetic and the editing decisions made for some memorable music-video style moments.

Music plays a much more significant role in this film, not only in its tone but its overall flavour. Los Lobos (famous for their cover of Richie Valen’s song La Bamba) produced much of the music, along with Tito & Tarantula (the singer, Tiro Larriva, also has a role as one of the dealers/occupants of Cheech’s bar). We’re given songs by The Latin Playboys, Link Wray, Dire Straits, Carlos Santana, Roger & The Gypsies, and Salma Hayek. I’ve had the CD of this film from over ten years ago. And while I acknowledge now that some of it is better off in the film than in my car stereo, that doesn’t take away from the importance it had on the film’s overall experience.

Would I recommend Desperado? Yes, I would. It is a step-up in quality and is a fine example of how a sequel can be better than the first film, which is rare. Robert Rodriguez had some more freedom with the much higher budget, and it’s clear that he had become more refined in his vision since last time. What is also great, as I mentioned, is that it also works as a standalone film. It has a beginning, middle and end, and addresses everything needed about El Mariachi. It leaves some room for next week’s film to be made, but we’re left with the choice to stop here.

Acting: ****1/2

Characters: *****

Story: ****

Art: ****1/4

Special Effects/CGI: ****1/2

Cinematography: ****3/4

Music: ****3/4

Overall: ****1/2

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