When 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.
I 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.
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.
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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.
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.
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: