19 September 2019 | aGlassofCinema_com
Before there was John Wick, there was... El Mariachi
I'd like to state up front that this is one of my favorite movies of all time. If you love Quentin Tarantino, westerns, or movies where a lone character absolutely decimates an entire population of villains (à la Atomic Blonde, The Equalizer, or John Wick), you will love Desperado. Written and Directed by Robert Rodriguez (recently known for directing Alita: Battle Angel), this is definitely his best movie. It's an original story, written produced and directed by RR himself. Interestingly enough Desperado is the second in Rodriguez's El Mariachi trilogy, which all more or less have the same premise: musician's love interest is killed at the hands of a gangster, and "the mariachi" goes on a quest for revenge. No one saw the first movie of the trilogy because no one memorable was in it, and the third entry Once Upon A Time In Mexico was too ambitious for it's own good, with a massive cast of characters that frankly diluted the fun out of the whole movie. Aside from a few memorable lines from Johnny Depp, it's mostly forgettable.
BUT NOT DESPERADO! It's the perfect blend of cinematography, music, and great script, made even better by the smooth yet seething Antonio Banderas as El Mariachi (EM), and the sexy-as-all-heck Salma Hayek as Carolina the librarian love interest. The opening 8 minutes sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Steve Buscemi walks into a seedy bar and proceeds to emphatically and with great showmanship tell the story of the "biggest Mexican I've ever &*$#%! seen" who massacred a bar full of low-lifes a few towns away. His story is aided by frequent cuts to said bar where the titular character performs physically impossible feats of execution. Half the fun of the movie is watching the characters learn about the terror of El Mariachi and watching their reactions when he finally arrives. And when he does, the heavy guitar music ramps up, and the set pieces provide an extremely fun backdrop for some great shoot outs.
Yet despite everyone painting EM as an immortal demon and an omen of death, the audience knows he is just a man, and seeing him get battered and bruised keeps the tension high through the entire hundred and seven minute running time. The concept of plot armor doesn't seem to exist, at least based on how much he gets injured, and this serves to keep the stakes high. In addition, the witty and frankly sizzling banter between EM and Carolina will make you laugh, and probably wish you knew how to play an acoustic guitar. Their relationship serves to give EM's character more depth than the average movie assassin, and is why he is one of Robert Rodriguez's better written movie characters.
At the core of the film is a sad tale of how a man with a love of life and a talent for music fell onto a path of darkness and death. Themes of family, love, and self-forgiveness are used to give the story some emotional weight, but only enough to drive the story and not enough to depress the viewer. It's a little harder to empathize with John Wick because he was originally an assassin, but EM was a simple guitarrista who had so much potential, but became consumed by a desire for revenge. This becomes even more poignant in the final act after he learns a shocking (some might argue obvious) secret, and is forced to make a hard decision.
The music is really one of the highlights of the movie. As the film takes place in a rural Mexico town, the genre of music employed is appropriately Ranchera, which originated in the rural ranches of the country. Think Carlos Santana meets traditional mariachi music. The fast paced shoot outs are riddled with as much music as they are bullets, and the fact that the music is actually tied into the plot makes it even better.
The cinematography also matches the gritty tone of the film nicely. Half the movie is an experiment to see how many epic brooding shots Robert Rodriguez can squeeze out of Antonio Banderas. It's a visual feast that makes me wish I could be half as cool.
The movie's other characters have much less screen time, which for some is fine and for others is a shame. Cheech Marin and even Quentin Tarantino himself make fun cameos, but the movie's villain is pretty standard fare. We don't see him commit any terrible atrocities, which makes him seem much less intimidating. Honestly it doesn't matter too much, as he is mostly a vehicle for the plot and for EM to participate in the bloodiest bar crawl in the history of cinema. As far as I know. At least in Mexico.
What I do know is that Desperado is a fun ride from start to finish. At minimum, you'll pick up some smooth pick up lines. At most, you'll have a new favorite movie to watch again again. I'm at 20 viewings and counting.