DESPERADO is my favorite Robert Rodriguez movie. People will always say the scrappy, home-made, subtitled EL MARIACHI is better, and a strong argument could be made for FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, with its Tarantino script and movie-star-making performance by George Clooney. But to me DESPERADO is his purest expression, the full enthusiasm of a young, hungry Hollywood rookie high on spaghetti westerns, John Woo and what his new friend QT was up to, fired into a full-blooded action movie uniquely based in Mexican culture.
The Tarantino influence shows in the talky opening with Steve Buscemi as the Mariachi’s hype man/street team, loudly telling tall tales about him in a bar, and in the scene where Tarantino himself plays a criminal telling a long-winded joke about peeing. But otherwise this has an identity very different from the wave of ’90s crime films, one that’s more visual and musical. He uses lots of slo-mo and dissolve edits working in tandem with a driving Latin rock score by Los Lobos. This is just one example of how the fresh Hollywood hotshot used his newfound resources while insisting on doing it his way. Another is the casting of the leads.
When the Mariachi was an everyman in a no-budget movie, he was Rodriguez’s buddy Carlos Gallardo. Now that he’s a legend in a real movie, he’s turned into Antonio Banderas. Once known for his work with Pedro Almodovar, Banderas had in recent years broken out in the U.S., first with an acclaimed performance as Tom Hanks’s lover in the AIDS drama PHILADELPHIA, then in INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. But in this he got to be macho. Rodriguez finds the badass action star in Banderas, but also the lustiness. He’s got him draped in shadows or framed in explosions, long hair blowing in the wind, rocking a scorpion jacket long before DRIVE, hands clutching guns or guitars or Carolina, played by Salma Hayek, who was almost a completely new face to American audiences. She was famous from a telenovella in Mexico, and had a bit part in MI VIDA LOCA. Rodriguez had put her in his made-for-cable movie ROADRACERS to prove to the studio that she was qualified to play Carolina. And of course he was very right. After DESPERADO it was clear she was a movie star.
Banderas in the movie is a cross between Jean-Claude Van Damme and the cover of a romance novel. I used to cringe at the Skinemax x 10 sex-in-a-forest-of-candles montage, but now I get it. Of course that scene has to be in there. These characters, played by these actors, are about to burst with unapologetic sexuality. They gotta do something.
In this one we find the Mariachi some time later, after he’s been drifting around murdering all the kingpins above Moco as revenge for the death of Domino and the injury of his hand. For this reason I think it’s weird that to this day people think it’s a remake of EL MARIACHI. That was a mistaken identity story, this is a revenge story. Revenge for what happened at the very end of that one!
But it does contain some similar elements: a bar run by the crime syndicate, a scary killer wandering around town, inept henchmen who go after the wrong guy, a woman who owns a small business that she lives upstairs from, who helps the Mariachi while somewhat indebted to his enemy. (In EL MARIACHI he was hiding from the enemy, in this one he’s trying to find and kill him.)
The heavy Bucho (Joaquim “Evil Phil Hartman” de Almeida from CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER and later BOBBY Z and FAST FIVE) is similar to Moco in that he mostly lounges around talking on a cordless phone while his henchmen, including a guy with a mustache, go after the Mariachi. Bucho has some good Just How Evil Is He? moments, and his villainy actually gets most of the laughs in the movie. For example there’s the scene where he’s incensed and trying to explain to his men that all they have to do is look for a stranger in town who has a gun and kill him. To demonstrate, he pretends not to recognize one of his most dedicated henchmen and shoots him right in front of everybody. Then he says, “Look. Who are those guys? I’ve never seen them either,” and starts shooting at the other guys as they run and hide. As he sends some men off in the bullet proof limo he shoots at the back window, like slapping somebody on the butt as they leave.
That’s the customary bad guy mistreatment of the help, and the mistreatment of the women is when he’s looking off into the distance while a woman humps him and then blows cigar smoke into her mouth. Not cool.
I also appreciate the traditional action movie shit he has going on on his ranch. He has his henchmen prove themselves in brutal kickboxing matches inside a pen made of sticks and cow skulls. A young fresh-faced kid (Robert Arevalo) earns his place in the organization in a fight where his leg is snapped but then he still knocks his opponent out (or kills him?) with a flying kick to the face. This is a Rodriguezian narrative red herring, because the new henchman is being built up and humanized just to die a quick, generic death exactly like any of the faceless thugs in plaid shirts or ponchos coming after the Mariachi. The character is only credited as “Opponent.” His biggest achievement is killing the wrong guy for the boss.
That would be Navajas, the knife thrower sent to town by the Colombian overseers. He’s played by Danny Trejo, beginning a long partnership with Rodriguez. It was on the set of DESPERADO that Rodriguez first said Trejo should have his own action series, and his attack on a limo here is pretty much restaged in MACHETE. Trejo had been in many legit movies already (DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN, MANIAC COP 2, MARKED FOR DEATH) but his memorable silent stalking here is what made me learn his name, and I suspect the beginning of his current icon status.
But my favorite bad guys are actually the doofuses who keep trying to please Bucho, but keep failing. Their boyish excitement to show him the new bullet proof limo makes me almost feel sorry for them. And they do one of my favorite cowardly henchman moves, when the boss is yelling at them and one pathetically tries to shift all of the blame over to the other:
Rodriguez is, of course, American. Back then I think alot of people assumed, because he’d made a Spanish language movie in Mexico, that he wasn’t. In fact, people used to think his name was Roberto. With that in mind, it’s kind of funny that his first American movie takes place in a world where Gringos are not really welcome. There are two different joke moments where clueless American tourists stumble into the bar and get scared off. Both Buscemi and Tarantino strut in arrogantly and clearly annoy the shit out of everybody the whole time they’re there (mostly because they won’t shut up, but I’m sure their outsider status doesn’t help). And that’s it for white people in the movie, unless you count Banderas, who is from Spain. But he’s playing Mexican.
Rodriguez (who dodged studio suggestions of giving the Mariachi an electric guitar) found ways to involve much more music than in the first movie. Though the Mariachi’s hand was shot by Moco, making it hard for him to play, he still dreams of performing, as we see in the opening credits. Though it’s a dream sequence with cameos by Moco, Mustache and Domino, and a bit where he wacks a woman-abuser in the audience with his guitar, it mostly plays as a sincere celebration of music, in this case an original Los Lobos composition called “Cancion del Mariachi” (with Banderas really singing).
He also teaches a little boy (Abraham Verduzco, SOLO) to play a song, which ends up being an excellent ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST type way to spook the bad guys, since it causes them to hear his song playing outside the scene of one of his massacres.
And Rodriguez really integrates the soundtrack with the sequences. Let’s take a closer look at one of my favorites, the one immediately following the huge shootout that kills everybody else in the bar.
The song “Strange Face of Love” by Tito and Tarantula seems to be wrapping up as the Mariachi leaves the scene, his exit blowing out the candles. A nice ending to a great action sequence. But as he comes back to the sunny outside world we realize that the song is not over, it’s only slid into a quiet breakdown with organ and vocals.
He walks intently across the street…
apparently not seeing this guy…
…actually played by Tito Larriva, the leader of the band doing the song, coming down the sidewalk with a gun.
The organ and guitar stay quiet as the Mariachi walks down the sidewalk in badass slo-mo, his face going in and out of shadow like in Buscemi’s story at the beginning. It keeps cutting from him to Tito following behind, looking for the right time to shoot. Here you can see him over the Mariachi’s shoulder on the right side of the frame. We don’t know if the Mariachi senses he’s being followed or not.
Then the music pauses and blows up just before the Mariachi unknowingly walks past Navajas. Doe he know that guy’s looking for him too?
Tito pulls out another gun, about to make his move.
Navajas perks up, but doesn’t intervene, and just then Salma Hayek walks from across the street into Hollywood stardom.
Great entrance. And then it’s like, oh shit, who is this? The two sexiest humans on the planet at that moment make eye contact as they approach each other…
…as Tito sings “Don’t look back, don’t look back / he’s right on your trail…” Which, as you can see, he is.
So Carolina’s flirty acknowledgment or yeah, I know, I’m hot look changes to wait, are those guns?
And finally it is revealed that the Mariachi knows what’s up because he quickly pushes Carolina out of the way…
… and takes some bullets, then tackles Tito, headbutts him, tucks both guns under his chin, and as the song ends he blows his head off…
…and is dragged to safety like a damsel in distress.
That bit with the blood splattering on his face is probly an homage to HARD BOILED, when Tequila kills the undercover cop at the end of the teahouse shootout. With American shooting schedules and ratings restrictions Rodriguez can’t match Woo’s level of carnage, but he comes closer than most. There are way more guns, bullets, head explosions, splintered wood and piled corpses than in the vast majority of American action. He’s got a gun in each hand, sliding across the floor, running down the bar, shooting behind his back, using Cheech Marin as a stool to jump off of, shooting a ceiling fan down onto a guy’s head, his bullets catapulting people into walls, through furniture, doors and windows. From his back he kicks a guy up toward the rafters and shoots him.
Then he’s able to stand all the way up and shoot a bunch more bullets into the sucker while he’s still in the air. In another scene he jumps backwards from one rooftop to another, firing two guns into people as he falls0. It’s kind of like a thing Blade did once, but without being able to count on vampire healing powers.
I appreciate Banderas’s weird ragdoll movements, throwing himself into it.
Sometimes he looks like he’s using his guns as maracas. He has his own idiosyncratic way of looking tough.
Towards the end there’s a nod to the famous POINT BLANK hallway scene. He walks intensely toward the camera, each footstep echoing loudly. But Lee Marvin was going to shoot his ex-wife, he’s going to take an injured boy to the hospital. He’s got alot of heart.
Somehow it’s always worked for me that the final shootout is covered by a fade out as the Mariachi fires toward the camera. It turns out they actually did shoot a violent scene there, but the cuts required to avoid an NC-17 rating were so severe that Rodriguez decided it would work better to skip the whole thing. It actually would be cool to see the unrated version of this, or at least the deleted scenes.
The guns and the music come together a little before that when the Mariachi gives in and calls two of his friends for help. They are Campa (original Mariachi Carlos Gallardo) and Quino (Albert Michel Jr., CRACK HOUSE), the mariachis backing him up in the opening credits dream sequence, and we now learn that they are badass killers with, respectively, machine gun and bazooka guitar cases. This bit of absurdity foreshadows the type of silliness Rodriguez would later indulge in (gun leg, gun boobs, Mel Gibson in space, President Charlie Sheen) but when grounded in a more serious melodrama type story it’s much more enjoyable. In this context it feels like a ballsy bit of freak flag waving instead of just a joke.
I mean, how did these guys get into this racket? How did he meet them? What did he do that makes them willing to die for him? As cartoonish as the movie is it’s earthbound enough that we wonder about these implied stories. That’s part of the fun.
I love DESPERADO. I know alot of people don’t. They’re missing out. Try it again some time.
DESPERADO got mediocre to poor reviews. I guess it’s not surprising that critics who were charmed by a tiny Spanish-language film starring normal people would not be as into a slick, super-violent, rock ‘n roll gunfest funded by Hollywood and starring ridiculously beautiful people. But the movie helped launch Banderas and Hayek into the A-list. Rodriguez got more respect as director of the best segment of FOUR ROOMS, and then FROM DUSK TILL DAWN.
In the 20 years since DESPERADO he’s directed 14 full length films. Six of them are sequels. Now he has a studio called Troublemaker and a cable network called El Rey. He curates the shows, directed six episodes of its From Dusk Till Dawn series, and hosts its interview show The Director’s Chair. So although I’ve got some problems with his recent movies I guess I can’t say he doesn’t work hard.
Rodriguez continued to work with Banderas, Hayek and especially Trejo, who he put in four FROM DUSK TILL DAWNs (including the TV show), four SPY KIDSes and two (so far) MACHETEs. Here’s how things have changed for Trejo: before DESPERADO he had about 40 credits to his name on IMDb. Right now just his not-released-yet credits number 33.
DESPERADO opened second behind MORTAL KOMBAT, which was in its second week, but it did pretty well on a low budget. Enough that it got the sequel ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO eight years later.
I believe DESPERADO is under-recognized. Sure, people remember that it exists, but they don’t really talk about it, even in an ironic/nostalgic way like they might MORTAL KOMBAT (though that had the advantage of being a video game they already knew and being far more ridiculous). Watching it now it’s a mix of heightened violence and emotion, rockin music and dry humor that only Rodriguez would’ve/could’ve made, and still hasn’t topped. Yes, it’s style over substance, but in a good way. What, you think it would be better if it made some statement about the danger of the cartels or some shit? I disagree.
August 25th, 2015 at 11:12 am
DESPERADO is the first movie I went out to Montreal to see in English (I grew up in French Canadian suburbs). The following year, I actually went all the way to the U.S. to see FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (long story), which was my favorite RR flick for a long time… Might still be, though I loved the bloody hell out of SIN CITY when that came out.