Judge Clark Douglas wrote this review on a very small budget.
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 (published January 28th, 2000) are also available.
When the smoke clears, it just means he's reloading.
"It's easier to pull the trigger than to play the guitar. Easier to destroy than to create."
Facts of the Case
In El Mariachi, a traveling mariachi (Carlos Gallardo, Grindhouse) suffers an unfortunate case of mistaken identity. It seems that he's been mistaken for a killer, placing a gang of violent thugs on his trail. While on the run, the mariachi meets a female bartender named Domino (Consuelo Gomez, Desperado), who agrees to let him hide out in a room upstairs. How much longer can the mariachi evade the men on his trail before he's forced to fight back?
In Desperado, the guitar player has now fully established his identity as El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas, Femme Fatale), the deadly guitar-playing killer. El Mariachi is on the hunt for a gangster named Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida, Clear and Present Danger) and is willing to kill absolutely anyone who gets in his way. During the course of his mission, El Mariachi encounters Caroline (Salma Hayek, Frida), the beautiful owner of a small-town bookstore. Caroline knows Bucho personally and is willing to help El Mariachi take him down, but that task is much easier said than done.
Whatever else it may be, Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi stands as a source of inspiration for aspiring filmmakers everywhere. Equipped with a budget of only $7,000, young Robert Rodriguez wrote, edited, shot, produced, and directed his very first feature-length motion picture. The stories of the film's making are as entertaining as anything in the actual film: Rodriguez recorded the sound with a cassette player, used carefully-disguised water pistols as prop guns, allowed a drug company to test cholesterol reducing drugs on him in a bid to raise cash and employed all manner of creative tactics in order to persuade the actors to work for nothing. Though it was intended as a straight-to-DVD release, the film managed to secure theatrical distribution and earned a very respectable sum of just over $2 million at the box office.
Most of the reviews at the time of the film's release were kind, taking the film's tiny budget into consideration and offering their appreciation of Rodriguez's basic skill despite his obvious financial limitations. Supporting an aspiring filmmaker is one thing, but how does the film actually hold up as a viewing experience? Eh, it's okay. El Mariachi is a modestly enjoyable action flick, with the youthful energy of Rodriguez's direction more or less compensating for the stale acting and cheap look of the film. It's never quite persuasive enough to shake that "student film" vibe, but it's certainly just as watchable as many mainstream action movies of the era.
The real draw of this Blu-ray double-feature is unquestionably Desperado, Rodriguez's follow-up film (budgeted at a vastly larger but still modest $3 million). Rodriguez replaced poor Carlos Gallardo with the far more bankable Antonio Banderas (and who can blame him, honestly?), upped the action quotient and added a host of recognizable supporting players to his cast. The result is a vastly superior sequel that proves legitimately enjoyable instead of merely something that should be appreciated for what it is. Rodriguez's films have been exasperatingly hit-and-miss, but Desperado remains one of his most entertaining.
I don't know that Banderas has ever had more fun in a leading role than he does in this film. Vigorously prancing around during the action scenes and spewing memorable witticisms, Banderas' El Mariachi is an action hero with impeccable comic timing. The fight in the bar run by Cheech Marin (Machete) is one of the highlights of Rodriguez's career, as the director and Banderas provide a hysterical sequence of slapstick violence—the whole piece builds to a bravura conclusion in which El Mariachi and another gunfighter fire a series of unloaded guns at each other, hoping that an unused bullet will turn up sooner or later. Banderas is even better during his scenes with Salma Hayek, as the pair generates excellent chemistry and slip into a fun variation on the old Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn dynamic.
Desperado also benefits from a series of enjoyable supporting turns. Steve Buscemi aces the film's opening scene, as he cheerfully regales a group of hardened criminals with a story about the legendary El Mariachi. Quentin Tarantino (smack in the middle of that fleeting era when he really, really, really wanted to be an actor) also makes a colorful appearance and gets to tell a dirty joke, while Marin and Danny Trejo (Once Upon a Time in Mexico) make strong impressions in their first of many collaborations with Rodriguez.
As you might expect, the video quality on El Mariachi isn't exactly breathtaking, but this flick undoubtedly looks as sharp as it's ever going to. The grainy, grimy, beat-up footage nonetheless offers decent detail throughout the proceedings, but the jump to 1080p doesn't exactly work wonders for this super-cheap flick. Faring much better is Desperado, which looks quite sharp despite being stuffed onto the same disc as its predecessor. There's a mild level of natural grain present throughout, detail is strong and depth is mostly impressive (there' s a bit of black crush during some of the darker scenes). Audio is merely so-so on El Mariachi, as some of the dialogue is a bit pinched and distant, but that's to be expected. The sound on Desperado will certainly make your room rattle—the constant action scenes are loud and engaging. However, they're just a bit too loud in contrast to the dialogue scenes; this is a track that could use a better sense of balance.
Aside from the bland "Cutting Room" feature, which allows you to create a video of your favorite scenes from the film, all of the supplements are ported over from the DVD releases of the two films: commentaries on both flicks with Rodriguez, the "10 Minute Film School" featurette plus "10 More Minutes: Anatomy of a Shootout," a student film called "Bed Head" and a pair of music videos.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm not going to pick on the flaws of El Mariachi any more than I already have, but I will note that the mostly-entertaining Desperado comes to an awfully underwhelming conclusion. After some 90 minutes of supremely enjoyable build-up, the film delivers a very poorly-staged showdown that offers visual flair at the expense of making the characters look awfully stupid. Given the strength of the earlier shoot-outs, I know Rodriguez could have done better.
A respectable little low-budget debut joins forces with a slickly entertaining follow-up to provide a reasonably engaging double feature. With a list price of only $20 (and most online retailers selling it for much less), the price certainly makes the prospect of an upgrade tempting for Rodriguez fans.
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