While I enjoy the revisionist westerns Hollywood’s been pumping out, and even the more standard ones like the enjoyable but overrated 3:10 to Yuma remake, nothing beats a good spaghetti western for me. The Man With No Name. Django. Trinity. And no one’s making them like that anymore, not even Takashi Miike with Sukiyaki Western Django. The closest we’ve gotten is from Robert Rodriguez, when he sprang onto the scene with his $7,000 indie El Mariachi in 1992, and expanded it into a loose trilogy with the over the top Desperado and the more indulgent Once Upon a Time in Mexico. They tell the story of an innocent mariachi who gets caught in the crossfire between two warring drug cartels who mistake him for a killer with a guitar case full of guns, painting a bloody canvas of exuberant excess. He must have had a lot of fun making them, and it’s infectious.
Still one of the best low budget films of recent note, up there with Clerks and Primer, El Mariachi was infamously funded by Rodriguez signing up as a guinea pig for testing a cholesterol drug. Filmed on a budget of $7,000 using locals as actors, a broken wheelchair as a dolly, and guns borrowed from the police department, he still manages to craft an enjoyable and original take on the old tale of mistaken identity. The story begins with an out of work mariachi wandering into town, guitar case in hand; he looks for a job in a local cantina, but in an amusing, sped-up sequence, he finds that his musical tradition has been replaced by a cheap synthesizer. In the meanwhile, a drug lord puts a hit out on his partner Moco who’s running things from jail. The hitmen fail, and Moco is out for revenge, lugging a guitar case full of assorted weaponry.
It’s good fun, is paced well, and the amateur actors feel more natural thanks to subtitles. It wears its low budget as a badge of pride, and Rodriguez shows the buds of his comic, cartoonish style in several scenes. The mariachi has to survive mostly with his wits, sliding across a power line and narrowly missing being hit by a bus, running between two thugs with machine guns so they shoot each other. There’s comic relief too, such as when he sings for his life in the bathtub to an angry barmaid with a knife jabbed at his junk. Rodriguez’s school pal Carlos Gallardo plays the Mariachi, and really fits the part of the innocent but wily man caught up in things beyond his control.
It holds up 16 years later, and feels timeless. Sure, he uses too many gimmicks like a wide-angle lens, but until Primer came out, I couldn’t imagine a film this good made so cheaply. And this was on film, now digital cameras have made it easier for everybody. I saw it in theaters when it got picked up, and watching it again makes me wish more backyard film makers like Rodriguez got their chance.
Desperado is the story continued with a budget of $7 million, still miniscule for an action film, but more fun than most Hollywood blockbusters. With Antonio Banderas as the nameless Mariachi, we meet him again after everyone’s favorite rat-faced weasel Steve Buscemi walks into a bar and tells a tall tale of a mariachi shooting up the place. The cast is full of such cameos; Cheech Marin is the bartender, Quentin Tarantino plays a pickup man. The Mariachi is still seeking revenge, hunting down the thugs of the drug cartel, but now they strike back. Bucho is the new leader, played as a delicious parody of the angry villain by Joaquim de Almeida (Ramon Salazar from “24”). While the villain in the first movie just liked lighting matches on his henchman’s faces, Bucho gets so incensed that he’s almost as fun to watch as Banderas on a shooting spree.
Ridiculous gunplay is the norm here- with a sawed-off scattergun or a pair of pistols hidden up his sleeves, he shoots his way through cantinas and cars full of thugs, in one imaginative set piece after another. He’s not bulletproof though, and ends up being saved by a slinky book shop owner named Carolina played with gusto by Salma Hayek. She patches his wounds and of course gets into trouble with Bucho and his thugs. Another great cameo is by Danny Trejo as a silent, knife-throwing assassin sent to take out el Mariachi. He wears a vest covered with little cross-shaped throwing knives, and steals his scenes with his tattooed, hulking presence.
The final battle comes when Bucho sends his thugs in an armored limo. The Mariachi needs to call in his old buddies, one is Carlos Gallardo, the original Mariachi, with two guitar case gatling guns, and the other with a rocket launcher! Yeah, it’s silly but they have lots of fun playing on the gunslinging guitar hero theme. The sense of humor that pervades the movie is carried perfectly by Banderas, who can swing from being a bad-ass one moment, to a self-effacing comic hero the next. Hayek plays right along with her iconic tough yet sexy Latina, and the pair have great chemistry. Too bad they haven’t worked together that often.
Los Lobos provides the great soundtrack to the rising body count and once again it’s amazing what Rodriguez does on such a small budget. It never has pretentions of grandeur and just wants to be a fun action film, and succeeds on all counts in that respect. Sure, it ends a little abruptly and the storytelling isn’t very polished, but I’d say this is the best of the trilogy. Following the Star Wars rule, the third entry should be a self-indulgent mess.
Thankfully Once Upon a Time in Mexico is not as bad as a Matrix sequel, but it is a sharp turn from the fun-loving light-heartedness of the second film, and that turned many people off. The title is a nod to Sergio Leone’s films; the Man With No Name was a loose trilogy with Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which were all straightforward westerns that reinvented their genre and have a coherent tone throughout. Afterward, Leone wrote his epitaph to the old west with Once Upon a Time in the West, with all new characters and a more artistic eye; Charles Bronson played a man named “Harmonica,” who also sought revenge for a past wrong and carried a musical instrument. The story of his vengeance is woven through a picture of the pioneer west getting shackled by greedy powers and the evil men they hire to do their work.
In Rodriguez’s epic climax, the Mariachi has settled alone in a remote village where old men make fine guitars, and he has retired from gunslinging. He is found by a CIA man named Sands, played by Johnny Depp with the usual quirky panache. He wants el Mariachi to take out a general who’s planning a coup- after he does it. He knows he’ll take the job… because General Marquez is the man who lusted after, and killed, his wife Carolina. So some time has passed since we left them; we get to see a wonderful tall tale of Mariachi & Carolina’s exploits as told by … Cheech Marin, this time as an eye patch wearing Mexican twin of Ben Franklin.
Therein lies the problem with the story; it begins as a downer, and doesn’t get much better. We get some exciting flashback scenes that recall Desperado‘s sense of fun, such as the gun-slinging couple escaping the General by swinging down a series of windows, fire escapes and flagpoles while shackled together by the wrist. But they are all too fleeting. The labyrinthine plot centers on many characters, not just Johnny Depp’s amusing if somewhat out of place wacky CIA guy. There’s also Willem Dafoe as Barillo, an immensely powerful drug lord; Eva Mendes as a sexy and tricky Mexican Federale, Ruben Blades as a retired FBI agent whose partner was murdered by Barillo, the new reformist President and his staff, and Mickey Rourke as a colorful chiahuahua-toting, purple-suited henchman who wants out. It’s an entire season of “24” jammed into 100 minutes, giving us little quality time with el Mariachi and his guns.
And yes, there are two more gunslinger mariachi pals this time, a drunk and Enrique Iglesias, both of whom are meant as comic relief but are ultimately forgettable. Rodriguez aimed for the stars with this one, and the ensemble cast makes for much of the enjoyment. Danny Trejo is back as a vicious enforcer, and there’s an amusing battle on motorbikes through a market and a cactus field, but this story is more about colorful characters and the peculiarities of Mexican politics than the free-spirited action of the first two. That doesn’t make it a bad movie, but it’s a definite twist on the story, and I think it may have needed epic length to better handle all the characters, plotlines, and betrayals it contains.
The movie has its share of fun and disturbing imagery, sometimes combined; Depp’s comeuppance is particularly memorable, and the mariachis have even more destructive goodies in their guitar cases this time. Part of it is a fantasy that has the people rising up against the evils of the drug cartels and corrupt military that have choked Mexico for centuries, but that’s something deserving of a longer storyline that isn’t as confusing as this one. I was never bored, but I didn’t care much about what happened, either. I wanted more of the Hayek-Banderas chemistry that the beginning teased us with, but it’s a fitting capper to the El Mariachi tale.
Rodriguez has since gone on to direct successful kid movies like the Spy Kids trilogy, gorefests like From Dusk Till Dawn and Planet Terror with pal Quentin Tarantino, and probably his biggest hit, the super-stylized adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City. Right now he has two sequels to Sin City in the pipe and another kid movie called Shorts; I hope someday he returns to making movies in his mythical spaghetti western-style Mexico, with guitar cases full of guns and other excesses. El Mariachi’s story may have been told, but there’s more tales in Mexico than his and the vampires at the Titty Twister!