So once again we have survived.

El Mariachi

tn_mariachiWhen Robert Rodriguez made EL MARIACHI in 1992 he was just some regular 23-year-old dude from Texas. He didn’t think he was ready to make a grab for his Hollywood dreams yet. He had no idea he would catch the attention of the Weinsteins, ride the wave of mainstream indie movies of the ’90s and eventually have his own cable channel and a mini-studio where he makes wide release movies without having to get out of bed.

Though most anyone would consider EL MARIACHI superior to most or all of Rodriguez’s modern output, at the time he didn’t even consider it a real movie. He only set out to make the first in a trilogy of practice movies to get him ready to make his first for real one. His original plan was to sell it to the Mexican DTV action market to get enough to make the next one. It wasn’t a cynical Asylum-type “this crap should be good enough for them” attitude, though, it was more like youthful bluster. I can’t compete with JURASSIC PARK, but I can compete with these movies. I can do better!

He came to L.A. to sell it to a Spanish-language video company, but they took too long sealing the deal and meanwhile he got signed to a major talent agency who sent it around to real studios and got him a deal at Columbia. His hope was to get a real budget to do a remake. When he realized they wanted to release it pretty much as-is he tried to stop them, thinking it would kill his career before it started.

mp_mariachiI don’t know if young people still know this story, but back then it was legendary: Rodriguez raised half the budget by submitting to medical testing. That’s where he met Peter Marquardt, who plays the villain, Moco. He shot on 16 mm, recording sound on tape decks, and had to develop a fast editing style to get around the two going out of sync. He spent a little over $7,000 on the movie, a ridiculously low price for something that played in theaters and holds up today on disc. People spend way more than that to do short Batman fan films. Of course every Tom, Dick and/or Harry wanted to be the brave hero who poked a hole in that figure, so they treated it as a scandal that Columbia spent way more for him to re-edit it on film, redo the sound mix and blow it up to 35 mm. I always thought that was a nitpick. You try getting somebody to do that for your $7,000 movie. And then, if it happens, for audiences to think it was worth it. I don’t think you’ll have much luck there, pal.

Of course that behind-the-scenes story helped turn the movie into a sensation, but I don’t think you need to know the background to appreciate the movie. This is a fun, clever story about a peaceful everyman caught in the middle of a drug war. Azul (Reinol Martinez) just busted out of prison and is gunning for his betrayer, Moco. Moco’s men have never seen Azul, they just know he wears black and carries his weapons in a guitar case, so when they see the unnamed Mariachi (Carlos Gallardo) going around looking for work they decide that’s their guy.

Gallardo doesn’t look tough at all, but he’s agile enough to do small tricks like climbing over a truck between two guys so they shoot each other, or swinging from a balcony to the front of a bus. Actually his main trick is jumping in the back of pickup trucks. It seems awfully convenient that there’s always one passing by when he needs one, until he does it to a driver who’s one of the guys trying to kill him. Whoops.

There’s occasional goofball humor, recognizable as Rodriguez, but the overall tone is serious, with ominous keyboards and slow motion walking like you did back when cool Americans were learning about John Woo. (From a May 22, 1991 diary entry reprinted in Rodriguez’s book Rebel Without a Crew: “I went to the movies to see John Woo’s THE KILLER. Damn. I wish we had more money for squib effects.”)

Though he didn’t have any real actors in the movie (much less Danny Trejo), Rodriguez recruited some good heavies, working class guys who look like they might really be willing to take that money to work for some asshole. Marquardt (who didn’t even know the Spanish words they had him spouting) does a great job at the swagger of the archetypical white-suit-wearing, slicked-back-hair, lounging-by-the-pool-with-some-girls type of douchebag kingpin. Good enough to forget that his villainy is mostly done by phone.

But my favorite character now is Azul, the burly gunman who the Mariachi is stupidly mistaken for. His pathetic operation – run first out of a jail cell with a phone, a henchman who sleeps on the floor and a machine gun in an Igloo cooler, then out of a pool room with cheesy Budweiser swimsuit girl ads on the wall like some dude’s basement in the ’80s – makes him seem more authentic. He can get a crazy look in his eyes, but on this last viewing I found myself rooting for him. Moco screwed him over, then tried to have him killed while pretending to be his friend. In the end Moco is right that having a heart is Azul’s downfall (he gets shot while commenting on the senselessness of killing an innocent), but Moco doesn’t live much longer anyway. So if one of these two is a winner it’s Azul for not dying a total asshole.

You could criticize the lack of a real gunfight at the end. Earlier scuffles mimic modern action movie shootouts, but the climax is more like an old western. They stand there and shoot and do nothing to protect themselves. But by this point it’s all about the story anyway. All of the character arcs collide and you either go with the melodrama or you don’t. I go with it.

Even within the simplistic action there’s excitement. The editing has a propulsive feel to it, the cut from the mariachi scrambling for Domino’s keys to him hauling ass on her motorcycle captures the urgency of the situation. I know in studio movies there can be a problem with everything being cut too fast, partly because they can afford to shoot on a bunch of cameras and figure out what the hell to do in the editing room. With no-budget movies you tend to have the opposite problem. Shots and scenes can hang on for one or two or twelve beats too long and it’s a slog. So it’s exciting to see a movie like this that achieves so much energy with so little.

still_mariachi

Okay, something needs to be said. I’m not gonna dwell on this too long, because my favorite Rodriguez is his slicker early days with a little bit of a budget, like DESPERADO and FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. I’m not gonna be one of those chumps calling him a sellout for gaining resources and professionalism. But rewatching this analog gem after so many years makes the digital age Rodriguez of MACHETE KILLS seem even more disappointing. He put alot of care into the construction of the story for this movie that he thought at best would be an obscure straight to video movie in Mexico, but now his movie that he knows is a wide release with a built-in audience is a winky parody that seems haphazardly stitched together from short celebrity green screen sessions. As a young man with $7,000 he figured out how to make bloody squibs (if not as many as he wanted after seeing THE KILLER). Now, as a professional with money and his own studio, he doesn’t always think it’s worth the effort, he just leaves it to the animators.

Ironically that’s a minor theme in EL MARIACHI. On his first attempt to find work at a bar the owner asks “Why would I want one mariachi.. when I already have a full band?”

Then he points to a dude in the corner who sets up a keyboard, cracks his knuckles and starts playing cheesy pre-programmed loops that sound a little mariachi, a little polka.

Of course the answer to his question is that an actual musician is way better, just like a real squib or a real location or a real script is often way better, so when you can afford it you should make the effort out of self respect and pride in a job well done.

The end is kind of funny in retrospect. When they made it they were expecting to make a part 2, but not DESPERADO. It would’ve been still no-budget, still starring Gallardo, still not intended for viewing. So they made this an origin story. He drives off with a motorcycle, a pitbull and I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be a robot hand? He doesn’t have any of those things in DESPERADO. But that’s okay. Call it an homage to how the end of EVIL DEAD 2 doesn’t quite match up with the beginning of ARMY OF DARKNESS. We still get the idea.

* * *
Here’s a piece of trivia from Rodriguez’s book. Before EL MARIACHI Rodriguez went to Acuna, Mexico to visit Gallardo, who was working as a production assistant on LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE. On March 9, 1991 Rodriguez writes “Carlos introduced me to Emmanual ‘El Chivo’ Lubezki, the cinematographer, a real nice guy who looks like Kenny G.” That’s of course the genius who later shot CHILDREN OF MEN, THE TREE OF LIFE, GRAVITY, BIRDMAN, etc., but Rodriguez met him and singled him out in his book before he’d done any American movies.

EL MARIACHI wasn’t designed to compete with Hollywood, but I was curious: what were these Mexican action pictures it was supposed to compare to? In his book Rodriguez writes:

Carlos and I do our homework by going to the local video store that carries Spanish videos and we rented the most recent Mexican action movie, ESCAPE NOCTURNAL. It sucked. These straight-to-video movies are done for the quick buck. It’s obvious whoever made it concentrated on putting a good cover on the video, getting a name actor on the sleeve, and then filling the tape with a crappy movie. I know we can make a better movie for alot less, because we’ll actually be trying to make a good movie so that we can learn from it.

He goes on to explain that the movies have no production value because they’re shot in people’s apartments and don’t have anyone running in the streets or anything. (Or green screen footage of Lady Gaga, he would later add, I’m sure.)

Later, during filming, he writes “In Del Rio we rented PERRO RABIOSO 2, which is the latest bigger budget straight-to-video Mexican action movie. Our main competition. It was awful, which really got us charged up.”

I wanted to see how EL MARIACHI really compares to these movies, but I couldn’t find ESCAPE NOCTURNAL or PERRO RABIOSO 2. I also tried to look up a LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE production manager named Poncho, who apparently told Rodriguez he produced “Mexican video action movies” and wanted them to make a film for him. I thought I could check out what kinds of movies he produced, but there is no production manager credited named Poncho who produced action movies. Just one named Belinda who was production manager for HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS.

The closest to a Mexican action movie of the period that I was able to find and rent was SUPERVIVENCIA (SURVIVAL), a movie from 1992 about a badass dude with a mustache and a jean jacket with wool collar who goes over the border to the U.S. to save some illegal immigrants from the KKK. In some ways it does have more production value than EL MARIACHI. Crowd scenes, more locations, a bunch of police cars, stuff like that. But Rodriguez is right – it just doesn’t have the love and care that EL MARIACHI has, it doesn’t have much of a story and that story is not told well. But it is funny to watch whole scenes of a Klan rally where a bunch of bigots in hoods are getting fired up by their leader’s speech… even though it’s in Spanish.

For extra credit I tried watching a more recent low budget Mexican action film. This one is called MACHETE (or MACHETE LA LEYENDA, The Legend of Machete, according to the credits), and it was made in 2006, between the time of Rodriguez’s MACHETE trailer in GRINDHOUSE and when he actually made the movie version. So it’s kind of a knockoff, but not really.

In the opening scene an old man confronts six guys who are playing dice. He takes out his machete and kills all six of them. Then he picks up the dice and says they were marked. I guess the implication is that someone was cheating, but I don’t know why the victims of this scam also have to be executed on the spot. Anyway, he rubs his chin and gets on his horse and trots away.

Then he comes across some kids beating the shit out of a homeless kid who says he’s an “outlander” and the other kids pick on him. So Machete becomes his friend and protects him. Basically it’s a movie about an old man walking around slowly and getting into knife fights with dangerous criminals on dirt roads and in bars. He always wins. Also the Devil is watching the whole thing. I don’t know. I couldn’t make that much sense of it. But here’s a couple stills.

still_machete1

still_machete2

still_machete3

still_machete4
Rodriguez must’ve been charmed by the guy Asylum-ing MACHETE, though, because he gave writer/director/star Pablo Esparza parts in MACHETE KILLS and two episodes of From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series.

Anyway, based on my limited experience with the genre, it seems Rodriguez did succeed in making an outstanding Mexican action movie on limited means, and in the process he also made a movie that stood out in the American market. EL MARIACHI holds up. As for atorvastatin, the drug that was tested on him, from 1996-2012 it made over $125 billion in sales, the highest selling drug of all time, under the name Lipitor, and hopefully also helped some people lower their cholesterol. Thank you, Robert Rodriguez, for your movie and your medical sacrifice.

OTHER MEDIA:

There is an El Mariachi TV series, which weirdly is not by Rodriguez and is not on his cable channel El Rey. I happened to catch it on a Spanish language channel one time, and the cable guide description sounded just like the movie, but from what I saw I couldn’t figure out who is the Mariachi or what it has to do with the original story, and the IMDb listing doesn’t help.

I have just learned that there’s also an unauthorized Hong Kong remake called RUN, which Rodriguez enjoyed. I’d love to see it but I don’t think I can pay $42 for a VCD. Anyway, here’s a clip of the scene where Azul comes into the bar:

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, August 24th, 2015 at 11:02 am and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

17 Responses to “El Mariachi”

  1. Okay, this is one of those movies, that have a personal history with me. So feel free to ignore this comment if you are not into CJ trivia.

    It was one of the first movies that I bought on DVD. The one that is two-sided and has this one on one side and DESPERADO on side b (Plus a surprising amount of bonus material). Don’t know if you in the US had the same one. Anyway, that was in 2000, I was a young, idealistic 18 year old, who was super happy to finally get out of school and somehow tried to break into the movie business. (Or just do anything else that has nothing to do with school.) I didn’t know much about EL MARIACHI and the story of its creation. I bought it, because I liked the heavily edited TV version of DESPERADO that I saw on TV before and of course I enjoyed FROM DUSK TILL DAWN and THE FACULTY. So you can imagine that the very informative audio commentary (the first one I ever listened to) and the “10 minute film schools” were something like a present from God himself, on my way to make my first low budget independent movie.

    But yeah, as you can imagine, it didn’t work out. And I wasn’t even working on an action movie. Just a Kevin Smith-ish dialogue comedy. (Only…weirder!) Although I came surprisingly close to doing it around 2001. But man, Rodriguez was my hero! (He obviously isn’t anymore.) I learned lots of stuff from his DVD bonus features and still recommend them to everybody. A few years ago I imported his REBEL WITHOUT A CREW book, but every time I try to read it, I get frustrated with the direction that my life took and how none of my dreams came through (and how even the few positive aspects of my life have fucking big downsides) and I throw it into a corner. (BAM! Tragic twist ending to the story!) I did however read the other book, that I imported the same day. A pretty funny and well written collection of reviews named SEAGALOGY. Don’t know if you heard about it. You should totally check it out, Vern. I’m sure you will love it.

  2. Oh, and yes, according to the audio commentary, the duct tape at the end was supposed to be a metal brace, but during the day of shooting, the responsible guy forgot it at home and they had to improvise.

  3. I pretty much only watch this one with the commentary on. The story of its making is so much more entertaining than its own story, which is not unentertaining in itself, and it’s really educational about the process of filming and editing to see the footage while Rodriguez walks you through the decisions he made and why he made them. It really demystifies a lot of the magic of cinema, which is very helpful for someone with no formal training to get a handle on the basic language of film. I feel that I am a better film viewer because of that commentary track. Rodriguez has fallen a long way since then, but he’ll always have my loyalty just for that.

  4. I have a theory about the ‘Mariachi Trilogy’. Rather than three movies told sequentially, it is in fact the same story told three times.

    Remember the telephone game? Where a bunch of kids sit in a circle and one whispers a phrase into the ear of the kid to his right? Then this repeats itself until the phrase has made its way around the circle back to the first kid, who then reveals how much the original phrase has changed and been warped in that small amount of time? Or what about a story told about your next-door neighbors uncle’s dad from five years ago? After several tellings that story gets more and more embellished and exaggerated that suddenly the guy seems like a superhero when in fact what he really did was somewhat everyday.

    I think this same principle applies to the ‘Mariachi Trilogy’. ‘El Mariachi’ was what “really happened’ (using the next-door neighbors uncle’s dad metaphor). ‘Desperado’ would be the version of the story told at the 10 year family reunion – the same basic ideas, tropes and structure, but with more embellishments, exaggerated events and Joaquim de Almeida thrown in. ‘Once Upon a Time in Mexico’ would be the story told 50 years later, when all the original principles of the story are long gone and facts can REALLY go out the window. No longer is the protagonist just a guy trying to make his way in the world getting accidently involved in a drug war, now he’s the guy who was the lynchpin in saving Mexico from being overthrown (and was covertly blackmailed by the CIA). But in each case the same basic structure and character types are present – just to a larger degree (and Joaquim de Almeida is replaced with Willem Dafoe).

    That’s how I’ve enjoyed watching these films – as a visual example of the telephone game where one small phrase got exaggerated over time to become a wacky epic awesome spectacle.

  5. There are a bunch of these Mexican movies Rodriguez speaks of on youtube, you can watch a bunch of them here:

    This search query I share with you, is full of movies of the Hermanos Almada (Almada Brothers), the biggest stars of the genre. Don’t feel too bad about watching these, since the money with which they where made is not always clean, and sometimes they’re all about lionizing criminals or the sort.

    There’s still a whole subgenre and subculture of these kind of movies, but since the situaton in Mexico has grown more and more violent, the movies have gotten, even when not directly financed by the narco and such, more about the “heroic” accomplishments of real life sicarios and druglords, so, if you’re really inclined or curious about this kind of cinema, don’t feel too bad about having to pirate them.

    Anyway, on the current movie, i think this and the first half of desperado, were the last times Rodriguez did something truly special and original. Listening to the WTF interview I truly believe he doesn’t know what he’s doing know is not that great. Let’s hope he can recover some of that magic someday, if not soon, someday.

  6. Vern, if you haven’t seen it, you should check out VICE’s video on Mexican Narco Cinema… it’s pretty entertaining.

  7. CJ- I can relate to your story. Maybe a bit too much. Happened to me as well. I also bought that two-sided dvd of EL MARIACHI/DESPERADO. Maybe same shit happens to everybody who bought that version, I don´t know.

  8. Ivan – I used to watch those Mario and Fernando Almada movies growing up. As well as the works of Valentin Trujillo and Andres Garcia without any clue as to the source of their funding so this is pretty eye opening stuff for me so thanks for sharing.

    That’s also probably why this movie was always pretty much up my alley. Actually my earliest memory of renting this movie was because I thought it was just another random Mexican action joint. Plus the cover with the tortoise and a mariachi with a gun was pretty appealing.

    Suffice it to say I was confused a couple of years later when DESPERADO trailers started popping up on American TV. I was like “did they just rip off EL MARIACHI?” it wasn’t until I saw someone on Univision refer to it as “EL MARIACHI PARTE 2” and interview Rodriguez shortly before the movie hit theaters that I finally knew what was up.

  9. I’ve also seen that EL MARIACHI TV series on Unimas. It was pretty wack.

  10. “so they treated it as a scandal that Columbia spent way more for him to re-edit it on film, redo the sound mix and blow it up to 35 mm.”

    Vern – reminds me of people who busted Kevin Smith’s balls because Miramax spent more on the “official” soundtrack for CLERKS than Smith spent on his film.

  11. In tenth grade, our Spanish teacher wanted to show us Almodovar’s WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, but watched it by himself first, and decided it was too sexual in nature for our 1994 minds. So the next day, I brought in a VHS tape that included a bad-looking EP recording of EL MARIACHI taped off one of the movie networks. He took it home to watch first, and came back saying it was a little bloody, but then shrugged and showed it to us anyway. Nobody in the class, including our teacher, had ever heard of the movie, but everyone seemed really into it, and laughed at the jokes about soda pop and lighting matches off peoples’ faces. Later in the year, everyone in the class was asked to name their favourite movie, and about half of them said it was EL MARIACHI. This inspired the teacher to ask me to bring the tape back, and we wasted another couple classes watching it all over again.

    Over a decade later, a high school teacher in some other part of America was arrested for showing her students THE ABCs OF DEATH.

  12. Is it weird that I lament the fact that Rodriguez’ career arc doesn’t mirror those of Isaac Florentine and John Hyams? I feel as though he’s got the ideal philosophy for DTV work, but it just doesn’t seem to work well with bigger studio pictures.

  13. It’s so frustrating that Rodriguez started out making the kind of movies he’d always wanted to see, but there’s no way he would ever want to see movies like MACHETE KILLS, then or now. Even SPY KIDS was the kids movie he always wanted to see as a kid, but by SPY KIDS 4 it was the usual green screen composite of actors shot on different days.

  14. I heard that he loved FURY ROAD a lot, so maybe that will inspire him to go back to his roots.

  15. Still the best thing Robert Rodriguez has ever done.

  16. I first watched this movie at my grandma’s house in 1996. My grandpa had a copy of this movie and I used to watch it every time I was there. Funny thing was that it was around the time that Desperado came out and at some point, I kind of started to see that the films may be connected, but I was uncertain. I later talked with my mom and a friend of hers, and they told me that there is a link between the two films. I didn’t see Desperado until sometime later, like a month or so when I either rented it on VHS or watched it on PPV.

    Now I did not really think much of the budget for that film considering how young I was when I first watched it (I was 9 then), even though I did see how there was a difference in how the film looked a little amateur compared to Desperado. I remember enjoying it a lot, and as a boy, I thought that Domino and Moco’s lady companion (To this day I still don’t know what kind of role she had in his life or operation; was she a sex partner? Manicurist who always rocked a bikini? Just someone who hung out by the pool a lot?) were indeed lookers. One thing I will say that stood out in my mind was the ever-so-fake-looking dismembered head in that dream sequence.

    I still think that this was a good effort from Robert Rodriguez. I enjoyed some of the films he did after this. As for his much more recent stuff, well I did like Machete, even though it was a little all over the place with its subplots and the whole plot involving immigration (Which was a little overdone). However, I have a totally mixed opinion about Machete Kills in that I can see what was trying to be done and was entertained enough, but even I found myself cringing at a lot of aspects. I can still enjoy it, and yet at the same time still speak negatively about it.

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