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Case Number 00289

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El Mariachi/Desperado

El Mariachi
1992 // 81 Minutes // Rated R
1995 // 106 Minutes // Rated R
Released by Sony
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // January 28th, 2000

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All Rise...

Editor's Note

Our reviews of Desperado: Special Edition (published October 7th, 2003), Desperado: Superbit Edition (published November 12th, 2001), El Mariachi: Special Edition (published October 7th, 2003), and El Mariachi / Desperado (Blu-Ray) (published December 29th, 2010) are also available.

The Charge

Just a simple guitar player…

Opening Statement

Robert Rodriguez made his mark on film-making forever when he got Columbia to release El Mariachi, a self-made action movie with the amazing budget of only $7000. He followed that achievement up later with Desperado, a remake/sequel with actual production values and a 7 million dollar budget. Columbia has thoughtfully given us both movies on one disc, with a nice collection of extra content.

The Evidence

Robert Rodriguez is no stranger to Hollywood now. Besides these films being reviewed here, he's subsequently directed From Dusk til Dawn and The Faculty. But back in the early '90s he was only a Texas boy with a dream. He wanted to make a film so badly he checked himself into an experimental program to test a cholesterol-reducing drug for several weeks to earn the money to make one. Writing the script while confined in the drug study, he took the $7000 he made from the hospital to make El Mariachi, and was it's director, producer, writer, editor, cameraman, and stunt coordinator. Using every trick in the book, and actually rewriting the whole book from scratch, he squeezed every dollar until it cried uncle. Expecting to market the film only to the Mexican video market, he received some well-deserved praise for it's quality. First it won the Sundance Film Festival, then was picked up by Columbia. It therefore became the least expensive film ever released by a major studio. Having gotten a development deal from Columbia for more pictures, he went on to make the sequel Desperado. Determined to convince he could make a bigger picture on the proverbial shoestring, he showed he could make a 7 million dollar budget stretch more than a $7000 one. The results of these two films were a 1.7 million dollar gross for the $7000 budgeted El Mariachi, and $25.5 million for Desperado, making him the darling of Hollywood; a director who could make a film for less money on time and make a generous profit.

El Mariachi is the story of a wandering guitar player looking to make a little money in a small town he is passing through. Unfortunately for him there is an underworld battle going on in the town, and one side is gunning for a man they only know to be wearing black and carrying a guitar case full of guns. Our black-clad guitar player is of course also carrying a guitar case, and gets mistaken for the other. He is taken in by a lovely bar owner and hidden away while the confusion is sorted out, but to no avail. Our musician is forced to kill several henchmen in self-defense, and only after capture is he found to be the wrong man. Ultimately the mariachi loses everything but the desire for revenge. It is a surprisingly good film, and you find yourself constantly saying "seven thousand dollars? No way."

In Desperado, the timeline is somewhat muddied and it is difficult to tell if this is more remake than sequel. The plot is so similar that it could be considered a remake, but now our mariachi is being played by Antonio Banderas (The 13th Warrior, The Mask of Zorro, Interview with the Vampire). Many of the same people are evident, the same town and location is used for the film, and the story is very like the former film. But now the guitar player really does carry a guitar case full of guns, and has achieved mythic legend as the stranger who kills drug dealers. He has come to town to find a drug kingpin called Bucho, who is supposedly responsible for all that happened to him before (never mind he actually killed that one who was named Moco in the first movie). Again a beautiful woman takes him in, this time Salma Hayek, who really could stop traffic. This time the stunts are much bigger, there are explosions, and you get a love scene. For those interested in such things this film has Salma Hayek's only nude scene, and for the ladies, Antonio Banderas is nude too. This is only one short scene in the film, and the nudity is not gratuitous. Rodriguez obviously was paying homage to John Woo for the frenetic fighting scenes throughout, and certainly that is the main focus on the film.

So how do these play on DVD? As for El Mariachi, it's a $7000 film. Well, to be honest, it looks like it cost a lot more than $7,000, but no one is going to confuse it with anything shot in Hollywood. Columbia TriStar has done well by the film, by offering it in a 1.66:1 letterboxed transfer. The respectable looking transfer isn't anamorphic, but it had to cost more than the film itself. Actually Rodriguez joked that the Columbia logo at the beginning of the film cost more than the entire budget for the film. El Mariachi has decent image quality; but nothing like what one is generally used to on DVD. However, you can see everything that the director wants you to see. Film grain is apparent throughout the presentation, but the colors are saturated well enough. There is some evidence of pixelation and edge enhancement on the DVD.

As for audio, the Dolby Digital Spanish monaural soundtrack has respectable fidelity and a low noise floor. Dialogue is audible, but without an English soundtrack I wasn't listening to it much. Portuguese and French language soundtracks are also provided on the DVD. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

The extra content is extensive. If you are interested in filmmaking, then listening to Robert Rodriguez's audio commentary is an absolute must. His commentary is almost equivalent to a "how to" course in filmmaking on a strict budget. Sticking with that "how to" theme is the disc's "10 Minute Film School" which is certain to appeal to the moviemaking wannabes inside us all. Other supplements include a theatrical trailer and "Bedhead," Robert Rodriguez's award winning short film.

As for Desperado, as you might guess the transfer is far superior. There is little evidence of artifacts or grain, and few nicks or blips in the film stock on this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Colors are well saturated, with deep black levels and good flesh tones. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack will knock your socks off. The discrete surrounds are fully utilized, and the subwoofer will be thumping. Dialogue comes through clearly and naturally. Again, Robert Rodriguez's audio commentary is not to be missed for the wealth of information he provides. Other supplements include Rodriguez's mini film school course entitled "10 More Minutes (Anatomy Of A Shootout)" and a theatrical trailer.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

While I enjoyed both these movies, there were things not to like in both. El Mariachi has to be taken for what it is, a low budget self-made movie. Taken as anything else and the lack of production values has to come to the forefront. Even in Desperado, I believe Rodriguez went just a bit too far in trying to make what he did in a 39 day shoot for 7 million dollars. To stay in budget, he had to kill off Steve Buscemi (Armageddon, The Big Lebowski, Fargo) and Cheech Marin (Up in Smoke, Born in East LA, Tin Cup) far too early because he was paying them by the day. On the other hand, he waited a bit too long to kill off Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, From Dusk til Dawn, Reservoir Dogs) who's cameo ran on too long telling a poor joke. There are also other gaffes in the film that were left in because of lack of time and money, such as the obvious shadow of a boom mike on a wall during a scene, and lighting problems that came because he couldn't afford to wait a day to get better light. A few of the special effects, notably the rocket launcher, suffered compared to higher budget films for being overly ambitious for the money spent. Another million dollars would have made a huge difference, as would have a few more days of shooting.

Closing Statement

This disc, priced at 39.95 retail and available online for less than $30, is a great purchase value. The extras are particularly informative and inviting, but the films are enjoyable as well. Put your brain on hold during the films and turn it back on during the commentary and short features.

The Verdict

Columbia is commended for making this special edition double feature on one disc. Robert Rodriguez has my admiration for his ability to make a film on a shoestring, but is sentenced to spending more money and making the final product more important than the cost. Some mean sentence, huh?

EDITOR'S NOTE—Norman had originally split the Scales of Justice into separate ratings for El Mariachi and for Desperado. I had to condense the ratings into one set to fit into our new database system by averaging the scores.—Mike Jackson

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• Action
• Independent

Scales of Justice, El Mariachi

Video: 70
Audio: 65
Extras: 90
Acting: 70
Story: 85
Judgment: 76

Perp Profile, El Mariachi

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
• 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Portuguese)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
• English
• Portuguese
• Spanish
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 1992
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks, El Mariachi

• Commentary by Robert Rodriguez
• Ten-Minute Film School

Scales of Justice, Desperado

Video: 90
Audio: 95
Extras: 90
Acting: 75
Story: 85
Judgment: 87

Perp Profile, Desperado

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• None
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Portuguese)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
• English
• Portuguese
• Spanish
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks, Desperado

• Commentary by Robert Rodriguez
• Ten-Minute Film School
• Short Film: "Bedhead"
• Trailers


• IMDb

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