Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

DESPERADO (1995) ** 3/4

Written, produced, directed, edited by Robert Rodriguez. Photography, Guillermo Navarro. Production design, Cecilia Montel. Music, Los Lobos. Cast: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Joaquin de Almeida, Cheech Marin, Steve Buscemi, Quentin Tarantino, et al. A Columbia release. 105 minutes. Rated R (language, sex, violence)
With many shoestring shorts under his belt, Texmexan Robert Rodriguez shot his first feature "El Mariachi" in the summer of 1991 on reportedly $7,000 -- a sum that may or may not have been deflated for publicity purposes. But even at twice that amount it would be a stupendously low figure.

The film, planned as a video for the Hispanic market, was picked up by Columbia Pictures and released in prints blown up to 35mm, with cleaned-up sound. It became a cult item among younger viewers and many older connoisseurs, though not a box-office hit.

Its subject was an itinerant musician who, mistaken for a killer, ends up by becoming one. "El Mariachi" was in the lineage of the 1960s spaghetti westerns, notably those with Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name. "Desperado" is both its sequel and remake, a taco western with Antonio Banderas in The Return of the Mariachi With No Name. He is again after drug kingpin Bucho (de Almeida) who had killed the woman the Mariachi loved and who disabled a hand. This interfered with guitar-playing but not in the least with gun-play abilities.

Banderas carries a guitar-case which, once opened, does reveal a guitar. This is a false front, like the buildings in Hollywood westerns. But unlike the emptiness behind the movies' stores and saloons, behind the guitar top is an arsenal that could win a civil war. In fact, when, much later, two Mariachi pals arrive with their cases, these have machine guns at one end and fire missiles from the other!

Banderas moves like a combination matador-ballet star, jumps like a gymnast-acrobat-trapeze artist, shooting twin guns all the while and scoring bull's eyes on villains. He can sing nicely too. And he is more amazingly kill-proof than any human or cartoon character I can think of. Occasionally he does get minor wounds, like mere bullet-holes or three knives in him, but he recovers with swift magic.

The Mariachi has an ally (unexplained) in bug-eyed, toothsome Steve Buscemi, who, in the opening scenes, pays a loquacious visit to a squalid bar. His tales of the Mariachi's Superman prowess sow terror among the drinkers and the inimical barman Cheech Marin, in the latter's most colorful role ever. It is all in funny bad taste, with details such as the beer (called piss here) coming out of the spigot with belching sounds. Funny-vulgar too is an anecdote told by another visitor, Quentin Tarantino.

It's a pity that Buscemi and Tarantino disappear, leaving the stage to Banderas and his newfound rescuer, nurse, girl Friday and lover Salma Hayek. She is a Mexican-born beauty who rates a 10 or close to it in pulchritude. In the dingiest of small towns, she runs a wonderfully incongruous "cafe con libros" (a cafe with a library!) which is also a stashing placefor Bucho's drugs.

Hayek is the only object of beauty around. Bucho (mucho short-tempered and casually shooting his own men to illustrate points) is the only "suit," impeccably dressed, in immaculate white in a film that therwise is the swarthiest imaginable.

Done in hyperbolic, bare-faced, mythical tongue-in-cheek style, and with no regard whatsoever for logic, "Desperado" also belongs to what my French friends call "un film gore." The most graphic mayhem, carnage, slaughter, destruction and massacres, all within under 24 hours, belong to the Guinness Book of Records. But they are so outre and outrageous, so preposterous and ludicrous, so much played for laughs, that it is impossible to be disgusted.

It is, however, possible to get bored by the monotony of more and more of the same. Rodriguez has a huge, inventive talent for photography, camera angles and movements, color and local color, choreography, crazy juxtapositions, raucous humor or absurdism ( a private "club" sign says "for members and non members"). But he has no valid script, no dimensional characters, no depth behind the surface. And his absurdities, when applied to the plot, leave you unsatisfied. The wrap-up Mariachi-Bucho confrontation has such a phony, would-be Greek tragedy revelation gimmick that it is strictly from hunger.

"Desperado" 's comic-book humor will, at a minimum, produce amusement in some viewers, gales of laughter in others. Even so, the bottom line is that this is a flick where 8,000 bullets (actual count reported), some 20 knives, several explosions, a dozen rockets, 100 guns and as many corpses are all in search of a story.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel