Forged from the same independent fires that gave us Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, Robert Rodriguez emerged from the independent filmmaking badlands armed with a debut feature that only cost a bewildering $7000 to take the Sundance Film Festival by storm in 1992.
Shorn of the ability to stage full blown action scenes, Rodriguez improvised like a madman, cast friends and family and essentially became a walking, talking film school thanks to his book Rebel Without A Crew which further escalated him up the Hollywood ladder to be counted with other such noticable indie gods such as Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith who awesomely assailed cinemas during the 90’s with their endless assault of game-changing movie geekery. But after all the plaudits and acclaim, is this Mexico-set, neo-western cheapie actually worthy of all the hype?
A young, idealistic Mariachi comes to a small town hoping to make his fortune playing the guitar just like his father and his grandfather before him but there’s a good chance he’s plucked one string too many when fate manages to plonk him directly into the middle of a feud between two local drug barons.
Moco has more cash and more men, but Azul is far more resourceful and when the former desides to off the latter instead of paying the money he owes him, Azul vows to take his rival down but here’s where the problems start. You see, no one in Moco’s camp has the slightest idea what Azul looks like except for Moco and his vague description only includes that the man dresses in black and carries a guitar case that is stuffed full of weapons. So into this hot bed of criminal activity wanders the naive Mariachi dressed – you’ve guessed it – in black and carrying a guitar case who is immediately mistaken for the cold blooded Azul by every lowlife on Moco’s payroll and is soon on the run from relentless henchmen and whizzing bullets.
He finally manages to find shelter with the sultry Domino, a streetwise bar owner and the reluctant target for Moco’s affections and the two start to fall in love, but with every run-in that the Mariachi has with the various thugs that are criss-crossing the town, the more the piled up bodies start to wear down the young man’s innocence until a chance meeting with Azul mean he accidently ends up with the case full of weapons.
A showdown is on the horizon, one that’s going to virtually guarantee that no one is going to get the happy ending they think they deserve, but who will walk away and who will be leaving this mortal coil with a rib cage full of hollow points?
To the uninitiated, El Mariachi will no doubt come across as a grainy oddity with almost no production values and will most likely write it off then and there, but the secret of Robert Rodriguez’s brilliance is, like Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi, the legend of the making of the film is inseparable from the film itself and to learn the various tricks and scores the fledgling director pulled of enhances the experience exponentially. Be it the stories of the film shooting guerilla style in a town where no one batted an eyelid when the young auteur filmed guys running down a main street wielding guns in full sight of everybody to Rodriguez managing to raise around half of the moolah he needed by participating in experimental drug testing.
Shorn of the ability to stage full blown action scenes, Rodriguez improvises like a madman, the jail seen in the opening of the film is an actual jail and it’s wardens are the actual wardens who worked there so the production could save on costumes and to get all of the impressively fluid camera moves, Rodriguez was simply pushed around the place in a wheelchair while clutching the camera.
It’s from this wonderfully imperfect acorn that Rodriguez’s empire grew and admittedly without that some might question what the big deal is, but then they’d be missing the raw talent that the director/writer/cinematographer/editor/producer brings to the table.
Most noticably, the film has a huge eye for cinematic irony with almost all of the characters travelling their way through the entire story without a single clue as to what’s really going on. All the mistaken identities and chance happening feel almost like what the Coen Brothers did with their debut, Blood Simple, in which carnage is caused by a similar lack of proper communication by the denizens of the script. Also the movie has a nice line in repeated gags like a match being callously lit off an underling’s stubble or a sleazy hotel owner dashing to a phone to immediately grass up anyone he can in the hope of a shifty reward which gives the movie it’s immense personality and it’s sizable supporting cast the sort of character you would usually find in a Sergio Leone movies even if they don’t have any lines.
While the action may not have the bombast you would quite expect (something Rodriguez dealt with nicely with an Evil Dead II style pseudo remake/sequel, Desperado) it’s still impressive stuff as our hero (played by Carlos Gallardo) zip lines across the street on a phone line and into the path of a bus while he’s being shot at by guns, that in actuality are painted water pistols.
While an argument could be made that if you are unable to separate the legend of the production of a film from the film itself, then it suggests that the finished product may actually not be good enough to stand on it’s own two feet in the first place, but my counter argument is this: while admittedly it doesn’t have the sheer rewatch value of other DIY debuts such as the aforementioned Bad Taste, The Evil Dead and Kevin Smith’s Clerks, there’s more raw talent in this misshapen 81 minutes of cinematic passion that a lot of bigger movies could only wish for and any film that could be enlisted as an invaluable tool for filmmaking novices is worth it’s weight in gold.
Yes, more professional adventures laid in wait for our intrepid director who still, even after tangling with bigger budgets, bigger actors and the occasion union complaint, has still managed to keep that low budget spirit alive whether he’s dealing with vampire whores, alien teachers, love sick androids or Mickey Rourke.
It all began here, in a movie that will teach you more about filmmaking in a single viewing than the entire catalogue of someone like, say, Roland Emmerich (sorry Roland, nothing personal) and it’s thanks to $7000 and an embryonic director with an impeccable vision that clawed together this backyard epic of homemade hombres and pieced together pistoleros.