The 90’s saw a plethora of iconic action movies released that mostly seemed to feature Nicolas Cage in some form or other – but while most of these high concept thrillers carried either the hefty budget of a Simpson and Bruckheimer production or the pedigree of a James Cameron or a John Woo, one markedly smaller bullet sprayer managed to make a massive impression with all the force of a hollow point bullet entering my brain-space in super slo-mo.
That movie was the third offering from the one dude film crew know as Robert Rodriguez, who’s homemade debut, the endearingly scrappy El Mariachi, wowed Sundance with it’s DIY grit and whole it’s admittedly a bigger budgeted remake along the lines of Evil Dead II and Phantasm II, the movie remains to this day by far the most Robert Rodriguez-y film Robert Rodriguez has ever made – and that my friends is what we call muy bueno.
Years after an accidental run in with a drugs baron left his sweetheart dead and his guitar plucking hand torn to shreds by a bullet, the mysterious El Mariachi has traveled from town to town with the aim of eradicating any drug dealer he can find off the face of the earth with flamboyant uses of the many firearms he keeps inside his guitar case.
Using his funny looking gringo buddy to spread a very exaggerated word of his arrival to put the superstitious shits up the criminal patrons who frequent the main, dodgy, rat-hole tavern, El Mariachi hopes that after he’s worked his way up to local kingpin Bucho he can finally quit this life of frenzied gunplay and burning revenge.
However, this is a Robert Rodriguez movie and due to epic amounts of miscommunication, not everyone gets the message as clearly as they should – so after our hero turns a local bar inside out with more bullets than Chow Yung Fat’s entire filmography, the call goes out to Bucho’s men to keep an eye out anyone they don’t recognize. Vague descriptions aside, Mariachi takes refuge with local girl Carolina who stitches up his various accumulated wounds and who clues him up on the corrupt nature of this town that his target pretty much owns wholesale. As the noose starts to tighten around the necks of all involved the Mariachi enlists some help from some highly destructive old friends who also own guitar cases full of cartoonishly destructive power and the scene is set for a showdown that’ll fill the air with more bullets than a swarm of buzzing mosquitos. But what is the real connection between El Mariachi and Bucho and is Carolina the key to our tortured hero finally finding some sort of peace?
Mostly throughout his career, Rodriguez has tried to alter his style to fit the project he’s working on – whether (by his own admission) channeling John Carpenter for The Faculty, Frank Miller for Sin City, Quentin Tarantino fir From Dusk Till Dawn or James Cameron for Alita: Battle Angel, he’s tempered his sweaty, tex mex leanings to invoke his idols – but with Desperado we have the unmitigated pleasure of having pure, uncut Rodriguez syringed deep into our veins in a way that wasn’t seen again until 2010’s Machete… or Spy Kids, I suppose.
To put it simply, it’s a fucking kick and it’s an almost perfect bullet blazer that comes complete with a full mag of memorable quirks and inventive action that ingeniously masks a tight budget that apparently allowed for only two stuntmen to be hired and had them throw themselves through windows and doors dressed in a myriad of disguises.
Stringing together a succession of scenes together that are initially familiar but twisted into something new by the director’s off beat sense of humor, this dusty non-western ends up being endlessly innovative with it’s story telling and remains pretty much the only movie of it’s kind for the entire decade.
Crammed to the gills with eccentric action that has an endless supply of massively satisfying beats and bizarre imagery (the rocket launcher guitar case alone should have nabbed some sort of honorary Oscar), nothing goes quite how you expect and yet feels utterly right. Nameless henchmen get weirdly full, mini character arcs only to get wordlessly cut down in a climactic gunfight while major roles are slaughtered before the movie is even a quarter of the way through, but it just adds to the the loose, anything-goes nature of Rodriguez’s absurdly exaggerated world.
Opening with a duo of scenes that I would un-ironically describe as a “couple of fucking bangers”, we open on bug-eyed, nineties, indie prophet Steve Buscemi as he strides into a dingy bar and proceeds to feed a line of exaggerated bullshit about the “biggest mexican he’s ever seen” to the nervous bad guys within while we get snippets of said fictional gargantuan blow people clean across the room with a single shotgun blast. It’s an astounding opening and it sets the scene amazingly as a title sequence then takes up into a dream sequence where our hero belts out a rousing song to an enraptured club while he simultaneously breaks the jaw of a knife wielding thug with his guitar while never missing a note. As twin statements of intent, you can’t get much better and things only get groovier from here as the film piles on the 90’s irony like it’s a two for one sale. The Mariachi and a thug struggle to draw on each other only to repeatedly find all the guns lying around them in the bloody carnage are empty; crime boss Bucho finds he can’t warn his men about a columbian hitman also stalking the town because no one’s bothered to jot down the phone number for his brand new armoured car and Carolina makes well meaning but continued sloppy attempts to patch up the our heroes frequent wounds – it’s all wonderful stuff and even a typically obnoxious cameo by buddy Quentin Tarantino is softened by the blow that he’s messily shot in the face soon after turning up and over telling a joke about urinating.
The action is predictably incendiary and completely ludicrous but Rodriguez’s flawless editing and sound design makes every cut, gunshot and music cue orgasmically poetic and mouth wateringly cool.
Helping sell the chaos immensely is Antonio Banderas who at the time was predominantly known for his work with Pedro Almodóvar and his role in Philadelphia and whose debut as an action star who actually divef off the side of a roof while firing two guns himself is a fucking revelation – similarly Salma Hayek spring boarded from this into a woman who can confidently boast Frida Kahlo and a exotic dancing vampire queen on her varied resume and both have chemistry so flammable you’ll be lucky to escape the movie with your eyebrows intact.
Rough, silly and yet imperfectly perfect in a way few films are, Desperado was the calling card Rodriguez needed to take his shot and join the original voices that where rising up from Hollywood independent scene at the time and to make his particular mark that still endures to this day – and all because the man knows how to get spectacular bang for his buck…