Robert Rodriguez’s official arrival on the major-studio film scene remains a riotous, stylish pulp actioner.
In 1992, Robert Rodriguez’s micro-budget feature debut El Mariachi put him on the map as a creative force who could, more or less, do everything on a film set including writing, producing, directing, sound, effects, and more. With the film functioning as a proof of concept on the filmmaker, Columbia Pictures gave Rodriguez a 7-million-dollar budget–massive in comparison to what usually worked with–to return to El Mariachi. The result was 1995’s Desperado.
Whereas once El Mariachi was an innocent bystander swept up in violence by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Desperado’s El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) is an aggressor, actively seeking confrontation and violence in the name of payback. Men under the leadership of the drug lord Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida) murder Mariachi’s lover and shot him through the hand, ending his musical career. In the years since, Mariachi has killed everyone involved with it. Everyone except Bucho, of course. In Desperado, El Mariachi is fixing to wrap things up.
What’s immediately striking about watching the film 25 years after its release is how much you can find glimpses of the director Rodriguez would become. On the one hand, you have the love of taking a childlike sense of make-believe and blowing it up huge on the big screen, something Rodriguez would do to more family-friendly effect in the Spy Kids films and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl. Whatever the quality of those movies, the gadgets and action felt like the kind of things a kid would imagine while playing spies or superheroes with their friends.
Similarly, when Mariachi’s allies Campa (Carlos Gallardo, the originator of the role of El Mariachi) and Quino (Albert Michel Jr.) show up in town with their own trick guitar case weapons, it feels like they’re characters from poorly-regulated Saturday morning cartoons. The only way the two could have seemed more like cartoons gone adult is if they also had color-coordinated outfits; Campa always wears red and carries the machine gun guitar cases, Quino wears blue and has the rocket launcher guitar case. That sort of thing.
On the other hand, we have the enthusiastic embracer and heightener of tropes. This is the Rodriguez that made the Sin City films, Planet Terror, and From Dusk Till Dawn. Again, regardless of your feelings on those films, it is impossible to watch them and not see how he loves indulging in familiar storytelling beats, characters, or action set pieces.
It’s that version of Rodriguez that makes Desperado so strangely overstuffed with blind-alley plotlines and twists that never really pay off. The most obvious of these is the revelation of Bucho’s identity that comes up in the films like 10 minutes or so and fails to create any sort of additional dramatic tension or pathos.
Like a lot of Rodriguez’s later work, Desperado is filled with an undeniable enthusiasm that makes its faults easier to ignore.
Rodriguez has so many ideas for the film, he often doesn’t seem to realize which are the really good ones. For instance, Steve Buscemi is great as El Mariachi’s friend and hype man. The movie gives him a killer scene at the start. However, he disappears from almost an hour after that, has another strong scene, and then totally vanishes. That sort of thing happens frustratingly often over the course of Desperado.
As a result, the movie vacillates between intense pretty action sequences that borrow smartly from the balletic aesthetics of Hong Kong and a sort of languishing pace when the bullets aren’t flying. By going so big, Rodriguez makes Desperado feel lopsided and uneven. At times, it feels meandering, looking for its next bit of ultraviolence.
The one thing that Rodriguez’s tendency towards maximalism can’t dampen is the charisma of Banderas and Salma Hayek as the town’s book purveyor and Mariachi’s new love interest. Both are fairly new to American movies, both are nonetheless in total control of the camera’s gaze every time they are on-screen. It’s no wonder Rodriquez wanted to cast one or both of them in several of his later projects. The chemistry the two shares only serves to further seal the deal.
Like a lot of Rodriguez’s later work, Desperado has an undeniable enthusiasm that makes its faults easier to ignore. It’s a big swing from a guy who would keep making movies after this, but had no idea if Hollywood would give him money again. Buoyed by that, his leads’ charisma, and some strong supporting work from Buscemi and others like Cheech Marin, Desperado is certainly never boring. It’s sloppy, ungainly, silly, and don’t get me started on that Quentin Tarantino performance. And yet, one can’t help but get swept up in its energy.