Cody Hamman celebrates Cinco de Mayo with Film Appreciation for Robert Rodriguez's Mexico trilogy.
EL MARIACHI (1992)
After spending his formative years making short films with friends and family members, Robert Rodriguez was twenty-three years old when he entered the feature world with El Mariachi, an action movie made for just $7000. Rodriguez famously earned a large portion of that budget by being a human lab rat, spending a month locked up in a research hospital so doctors could monitor him while giving him an experimental drug.
Rodriguez had relatively humble intentions for his first feature. It was supposed to be a practice film for he and his friend/star/producing partner Carlos Gallardo, the first in a trilogy that they hoped might get released on the Spanish video market. Once they had gotten movie making experience from making their Spanish DTV movies, they could attempt to move into the big leagues. Instead, Rodriguez's $7000 feature debut launched him right into a very successful and high profile career.
Gallardo plays the titular character, whose name we never learn. What we do know about him is that he's a fourth generation mariachi who wants to dedicate his life to travelling from town to town, getting paid to play his music. He walks into a small Mexico border town, guitar case in hand, seeking employment at one of the local bars.
The mariachi is rudely rejected at the first bar he tries. Soon after he leaves, another man enters the bar, dressed similarly (in black) and also carrying a guitar case. This man is called Azul, and up until recently he had been living a peaceful life as a prisoner in a small local jail, running criminal business from his cell, which he had set up as an office, phone and all. That peace was shattered when a former associate, a criminal kingpin called Moco, sent some lackeys to the jail to wipe out the debt Moco owes Azul by killing him. They weren't prepared for the fact that Azul's fellow prisoners were on his payroll, and all armed. After the failed killers were killed, Azul paid his way out of the jail so he could get revenge on Moco.
Azul's guitar case doesn't contain a musical instrument. Instead, he's using it to conceal a cache of weapons - guns, knives, knuckledusters. He puts these weapons to use killing the few patrons of the bar, all of whom worked for Moco.
El Mariachi then becomes a "wrong man" film, as Moco's well-armed henchmen hit the streets looking for a man dressed in black and carrying a guitar case... and mistake the mariachi for Azul. The hopeful musician is caught in the middle of a gang war, stuck in a strange town, fighting for his life with just one ally: Domino, a bar owner who gives him shelter (after confirming he only carries a guitar) while they very quickly fall for each other.
The story is simple, there wasn't much of a script (40 pages), but El Mariachi is a very entertaining, satisfying movie to watch.
Shot on 16mm with a borrowed camera, it was made with no crew and little equipment - two 250 watt light bulbs, a borrowed wheelchair used to get dolly shots, a ladder for a "crane shot", some guns, blanks, and squibs. The movie was shot silent, with the actors, who were all amateurs, friends and family members, recording their lines onto tape immediately after the scenes were shot. The scenes were usually done in one take. The production was the definition of indie guerilla filmmaking. For part of the summer of 1991, Rodriguez and Gallardo took over a small Mexican border town to make their movie, which inadvertently became one of the most popular indie films of the decade.
Circumstances and lack of film caused Rodriguez to have to shoot things very quickly, but he managed to make the fast shooting look stylistic rather than hectic or sloppy, assembling everything in a quick cut manner that propels the movie forward with a lively energy. Some of that quick cutting was due to the dialogue going out of sync in scenes - Rodriguez would cut away from the character speaking any time their lips didn't perfectly match their words. Because of this, some scenes are cut together in an unusual way which still totally works.
Rodriguez could clearly handle action, and the fast cuts help sell the idea that the guns are firing multiple shots when the blanks used would actually cause them to jam. The gunfights are simplistic but effective, and Rodriguez was able to get an impressive stunt moment in there by having a bus drive down a street while Gallardo zip-lined across in front of it.
The inexperienced actors do well in their roles, with Gallardo and Consuelo Gómez (Domino) making their characters quite likeable. Gallardo is a great leading man. Peter Marquardt is impressive as Moco, considering the fact that he didn't really speak Spanish, and Reinol Martinez is fun to watch as Azul.
El Mariachi exceeded expectations when Rodriguez had better luck getting a copy of the movie into the hands of a talent agent than making a deal with Spanish home video distributors. Rather than a video company, the movie got purchased by Columbia Pictures, and Rodriguez was getting offers from companies all over Hollywood.
The film remains an impressive accomplishment given the budget and size of production. It's a popcorn action movie with arthouse cred. The style and energy made it stand out among its indie peers in the early '90s, and the success it spawned has made it an inspiration to many since. The book Rodriguez wrote about making it, Rebel Without a Crew, is highly recommended reading for any aspiring filmmaker.
When Rodriguez was considering deals for the El Mariachi distribution rights, there was a lot of talk about him remaking the movie for one of the Hollywood studios. The deal he made with Columbia did lead to him making a Mariachi movie for the studio (after making the TV movie Roadracers for Showtime), but it's not really a remake.
The first time I heard about Desperado and El Mariachi was in the 1995 summer movie preview issue of Entertainment Weekly, and in their brief description of the film EW referred to Desperado as a remake/sequel this promising new filmmaker Robert Rodriguez had made to his low budget debut that had rocked those who were lucky enough to see it. El Mariachi hadn't reached my town yet. I was intrigued. I was getting into the indie world then, I was already a fan of Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, and Richard Linklater. I wanted to see what this Rodriguez guy was doing.
I became even more interested soon after, when an issue of Fangoria announced that Rodriguez would be teaming up with Tarantino - the two had crossed paths while promoting El Mariachi and Reservoir Dogs and became good friends - for the vampire horror movie From Dusk Till Dawn. I poured over every article and TV report I could find about From Dusk Till Dawn, I obsessed over that movie in the build-up to its release in January of 1996... and for a while after.
I didn't see Desperado when it was released theatrically in August of 1995, though. My father did, and raved about it, but I didn't catch it until it was released on VHS in February '96 and my father rented it the day it hit the shelf at a local video store.
Buscemi's amusing monologue is intercut with glimpses of the over-the-top acts of violence the character supposedly saw the mariachi commit, and ends with a cryptic "I think he's heading this way."
As it turns out, Buscemi is in league with the mariachi, who is now played by Antonio Banderas, giving the film a bit more star power since it was a $7 million studio picture. Original mariachi Carlos Gallardo appears in the film as Campa, a musician buddy who used to perform with the mariachi along with Albert Michel Jr. as Quino. Campa and Quino are first introduced during the title sequence, a dream that starts off with the mariachis playing a gig and then turns into a flashback to the end of El Mariachi: the mariachi discovering the corpse of Domino before being shot in the left hand by Moco (Peter Marquardt and Consuelo Gómez reprise their roles.)
Desperado is a sequel to El Mariachi, but continues the story by putting the mariachi on a rampage of revenge against people that really had nothing to do with what happened in the previous movie. Azul and Moco were the problem, they're dead, but apparently the mariachi intends to wipe out the whole criminal organization they were part of, and it ends with this fellow Bucho. Buscemi told the story in the bar to see what sort of reaction he would get by mentioning Bucho, and the reaction he got tells him that they've finally reached the location of this kingpin.
Carrying his weapon-filled guitar case (one of the items in there is a codpiece gun that was later put to use by Tom Savini's character in From Dusk Till Dawn), the mariachi goes to the bar on the same day that a talkative "pick-up guy" played by Quentin Tarantino has swung by to make some kind of illegal transaction. The mariachi is really only seeking information on Bucho, but when the situation erupts into violence he is quite prepared to handle it.
Buscemi had hyped him up to mythical proportions, but when the mariachi is in action, his abilities aren't far off from what they were in that tall tale. He wipes out the criminal clientele and employees of this bar in an extended gunfight, just one of several that this film contains. With the action sequences, Rodriguez was trying to make Desperado (he wanted to call it the more fitting Pistolero) a Mexican John Woo movie, a south-of-the-border Hard Boiled or The Killer. The gunplay may not be as impressive here as it was in Woo's work, but Rodriguez was successful in making it quite awesome in its own right.
Wounded in the gunfight, the mariachi is taken in by bookstore owner Carolina (Salma Hayek) and the pair quickly fall for each other while Bucho's men search the streets for, and occasionally have altercations with, the mariachi. As in the first film, there is an instance of mistaken identity, this time with Bucho's men confusing knife-throwing assassin Navajas (Danny Trejo), who was sent by Bucho's Colombian associates, for the mariachi.
It is eventually revealed that Carolina has a connection to Bucho, much like Domino did to Moco, but it's nothing compared to the connection the mariachi and Bucho happen to have.
Many bullets are fired, knives are thrown, necks are broken, things explode, at one point Campa and Quino come to town with weaponized guitar cases of their own, all leading up to the mariachi and Bucho having a face-to-face in the criminal's compound.
One thing I really hated was how the climactic gunfight fades to black just as it's getting started. In his audio commentary, Rodriguez says that it was a stylistic choice forced by the MPAA. The final gunfight was a bloody one, and the ratings board required many cuts to it if the film was going to receive an R rating. It was such a hassle that Rodriguez decided to just have the scene fade to black. Now it's a choice I can appreciate even without knowing the story of why it was made. The film has already been packed with gunfights, so one more shootout isn't entirely necessary, especially when the first person to fall is the main villain. The rest of the characters become irrelevant at that point. The hero has achieved his objective.
Banderas's performance grew on me over subsequent viewings, of which there were many, because Desperado became something of a sensation among my friends and family. I rewatched it for the gunfights, my father thought it was great, my friends were wowed by the action, my brother and sister-in-law watched it repeatedly while she crushed on Banderas. Desperado was sort of inescapable in 1996, and I came to appreciate it more and more.
Rodriguez did a fantastic job stepping up into the studio world, while still working with a budget that required him to use indie sensibilities and stylish filming and editing to make the movie look even bigger than it actually was.
The cast was very strong. Cheech Marin and Steve Buscemi are always welcome cast members. This film, along with From Dusk Till Dawn quick on its heels, was really the breakthrough project for Salma Hayek and Danny Trejo. Trejo had been appearing in movies for over ten years before this, including Death Wish 4 and Maniac Cop 2, but Desperado began his ascension to becoming one of the most successful character actors ever. In the last 20 years, he has added over 250 more acting credits to his filmography.
Raul Julia was initially cast as Bucho, but had to drop out due to illness before filming began, and unfortunately passed away soon after. Julia was replaced by Joaquim de Almeida, who is a lot of fun in the role.
There's not much more to Desperado than there was to El Mariachi, it's a really simple story, but the action and its quirky tone make it a very entertaining movie to watch.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO (2003)
The plan was always for El Mariachi to be a trilogy, but if the original idea of making the three movies for Spanish home video had been stuck to, I'm pretty certain it wouldn't have taken a decade for the trilogy to be completed. The third film definitely wouldn't have had an estimated budget of around $29 million.
The third film also wouldn't quite be what it is if Robert Rodriguez hadn't met Quentin Tarantino. It was Tarantino who put the idea in Rodriguez's head that he was basically making a Mexican version of Italian director Sergio Leone's "Dollars trilogy", which starred Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name. El Mariachi and Desperado had been Rodriguez's A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, but he needed to complete the trilogy with an epic. His The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Leone had also made a "Once Upon a Time trilogy" with Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time... the Revolution (better known as Duck, You Sucker!), and Once Upon a Time in America, so Tarantino felt that Once Upon a Time in Mexico would be the perfect title for the final installment in the Mariachi trilogy. Rodriguez took his friend's advice.
Rodriguez did put the idea of completing the Mariachi trilogy on the back burner for a while. Although Columbia Pictures wanted a sequel due to the home video and cable TV success of Desperado, Rodriguez had other things going on. Once Upon a Time in Mexico was finally spurred into production by the looming threat of a Screen Actors Guild strike in the summer of 2001. Rodriguez was set to make Spy Kids 2 around that time, but it was too risky, the film would involve too many special effects and couldn't be disrupted by a strike. So he turned back to the mariachi and a project he knew he could knock out in guerilla style like the old days. The production was put together quickly and shot in what would have been the eleventh hour before the strike deadline (the strike ended up being averted), a time frame which also happened to be the tenth anniversary of when Rodriguez filmed El Mariachi.
Rodriguez also used Once Upon a Time in Mexico as an opportunity to experiment. He had gotten his hands on an HD camera for a few days while shooting the first Spy Kids and wanted to try it out some more. Mexico became the first movie Rodriguez shot entirely in HD, a format he latched onto and has never turned away from since. It's understandable why Rodriguez likes HD so much, it fits his fast and loose style. Even when he was making movies on 35mm, he was still shooting like them they were "run and gun" flicks, and now technology had reached a point that gave him more freedom in his approach.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico begins, as Desperado did, with a character relating a myth-level version of the mariachi legend to another, in this case it's Cheech Marin - not as the same (deceased) character he played in Desperado, but as a one-eyed fellow named Belini - telling the story to Johnny Depp as CIA agent Sands. Although it features embellished elements that aren't quite accurate, like the mariachi using a guitar gun, Belini's tale also gives us our first glimpse at the back story the mariachi has in this film, events that occurred between Desperado and this one that are gradually revealed to the audience through flashbacks.
After Desperado, the mariachi and Carolina's happily ever after was disrupted by an ex of hers, rogue Mexican Army General Emiliano Marquez (Gerardo Vigil). Marquez tracked the couple down and tried to kill the mariachi so he could have Carolina for himself again, but instead was shot by Carolina and left for dead. The mariachi and Carolina continued on with their lives, had a daughter, but Marquez eventually caught up with them again and killed Carolina and the child.
One of the flashbacks to the Marquez ordeal is actually a scene that was cut out of the Desperado script, deemed by Rodriguez to be too complicated to accomplish in 1994. In it, the mariachi and Carolina awake in a fifth floor hotel room to find that they have been shackled together. They then have to escape the general's men by scaling down the side of the building together... This is a scene that works better as an oddball flashback than it would have in the main story, because it makes no sense. Why sneak into a room and shackle people together while they're sleeping, then send guys with machine guns after them? Why not just kill them instead of shackling them?
The Desperado cut scene ends as an El Mariachi homage, with the mariachi and Carolina attempting to use the shackle chain to slide across the street on a wire, but getting interrupted by a bus driving down the street.
Since the death of Carolina and their daughter, the mariachi has been living in a village of guitar makers. Sands is dealing with a situation that involves Marquez, and Belini recommends that the CIA agent seek out the help of the mariachi.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico is much more complicated than El Mariachi or Desperado. This isn't a simple story of mistaken identity or revenge, this is a struggle for the future of Mexico. There are a lot of characters involved, each with their own plotline. At the center of it all is Sands.
Sands has gotten word that criminal kingpin Armando Barillo (Willem Dafoe) is planning a coup. Barillo has made a deal to pay Marquez 20 million pesos to assassinate the country's president (Pedro Armendáriz, Jr., who played a president in the James Bond movie Licence to Kill) so he can take over the country. Sands says he's fine with El Presidente being killed, but he wants the mariachi there to kill Marquez once its done.
The mariachi has put the pistolero life behind him, but he accepts the job for the chance to avenge Carolina and their daughter. Being a good guy, he of course has no intention of letting the president be killed, either. To help him battle Marquez and his men, the mariachi recruits two mariachi from his past - Campa and Quino are dead, so this time it's Enrique Iglesias as Lorenzo and Marco Leonardi (From Dusk Till Dawn 3) as Fideo.
Sands then needs someone to handle Barillo, so he contacts retired FBI agent Jorge Ramirez (Rubén Blades), who worked the Barillo case when he was still with the bureau. Ramirez goes after Barillo with the help of Barillo's right hand man Billy Chambers (Mickey Rourke), an American criminal on the run who hates working for Barillo, and Chambers' chihuahua Moco, who wears a wire on his collar.
Sands also has an agenda of his own in this situation. While the coup attempt is going on, he intends to steal the 20 million pesos Barillo promised to Marquez with the help of his federal agent ex-girlfriend Ajedrez (Eva Mendes).
In addition to all these players, there's Danny Trejo as mercenary wild card Cucuy.
There are twists and turns, betrayals and revelations, and things don't turn out the way most of the characters would like them to.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico is Rodriguez's mariachi epic, but he still manages to pack it all into a film with a running time a few minutes shorter than Desperado's. That's typical Rodriguez, I couldn't imagine him ever making something that approaches the nearly three hour length of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The action sequences are the biggest yet in the series, and Rodriguez uses seamless digital effects to enhance the impressiveness of some moments. There are a couple shots during a vehicular chase where it looks like stuntmen actually got plowed down by cars and trucks. It's excellent digital trickery.
The plot is very interesting and Rodriguez managed to put together an incredible cast. Banderas is back as the mariachi, but now he's a man who has been beaten down by life. He's more low-key, and Banderas does well getting across the character's emotional conflict. It's somewhat disappointing that Salma Hayek didn't get to play a larger role in this sequel, I didn't want her character to meet the fate she did. The other returning cast members, Marin and Trejo, are as great as expected, and all the new additions do solid work. Rubén Blades in particular has a very likeable presence, and Mickey Rourke's chihuahua was truly a star. Eva Mendes was on her way up when this movie was filmed, but had reached a new level by the time it was released.
Someone else who had received a career bump by the time Mexico hit screens was Johnny Depp, and one could argue that he is the star of this movie. He steals the show as Sands, making the CIA agent a very quirky character in a time before Depp's characters became overwhelmingly quirky. He wears terrible tourist shirts, wears a fake arm during meetings so he can secretly hold a gun under the table, has a deadly obsession with a certain pork dish, and rambles out amusing lines that had to be primarily improv. Heading into the third act, Sands loses his eyes. The fact that he has to participate in a gunfight after being blinded makes the character even more memorable.
Depp was a year away from filming on the first Pirates of the Carribean movie when Mexico was shot, but does ask someone if they're "savvy" in this. Mexico ended up coming out two months after Pirates.
Post-production on Once Upon a Time in Mexico took two years because Rodriguez set it aside while making Spy Kids 2 and 3. I had followed the production through internet news sites in 2001 and was anxiously awaiting the day it would reach theatres. That day finally came in September of 2003, and I saw the movie twice during its opening weekend, one of those times with a friend I had helped introduce to Desperado in 1996. We were both glad to see the mariachi back in action.
The two year wait since it was filmed and seven year wait since Desperado was worth it. Once Upon a Time in Mexico is great, and I would say it's up there as one of Rodriguez's best. I've loved some of the movies he's made since this, but in recent years his work has gotten more cartoony. This is one of his more thoughtful films, and it benefits from that.
At the time of release, Rodriguez mused about sequel possibilities, the idea of making Once Upon a Time in Mexico parts 2 and 3 just to have two trilogies that add up to only five movies. Twelve years later, it doesn't appear that those sequels will ever happen, and as much as I was left wanting to see more of Johnny Depp as the sightless Sands, I'm fine with the El Mariachi saga having ended. The trilogy had a fantastic capper, the mariachi saves Mexico. There's really nowhere else he could or should go from there.