Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, January 12, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (1995) Part One

3. Desperado

Following his buzzy indie debut and a slick TV movie, it was time for Robert Rodriguez to break into the mainstream. As a young director eager to make it to the big times, it only made sense to sequelize his previous success. “Desperado” was made for seven million dollars, one thousand times more than “El Mariachi.” A crowd-pleasing action-fest, it would become a financial success. Rodriguez would solidify his status as one of the hot up-and-comers of his time by casting Quentin Tarantino, the hottest director at the time, in the film. The box office and video  popularity of “Desperado” is what would truly make the director a hip and cool favorite among a certain creed of film nerds.

Following the loss of his girlfriend and his hand, the unnamed mariachi player has turned himself into a legend. With his guitar case full of guns, he travels Mexico, taking out drug dealers and all their cronies. One target, a drug kingpin named Butcho, remains on his list. He arrives in the town of Tarasco, decimating a bar full of scumbags. However, he's injured following the shoot-out. He's rescued by Carolina, a beautiful young woman running a local book store. The longer he stays, the more El Mariachi discovers how deep Butcho's power over the town runs. It's only a matter of time before the two confront each other.

“Desperado” was originally intended as a bigger budget, English-language remake of “El Mariachi.” In many ways, it still is. The mistaken identity plot is ditched. However, this is still a story of a man in black entering a small Mexican town. (The western aspect of this story is leaned into especially hard this time.) He guns down a whole bunch of bad guys, falls in love with a beautiful local business owner, and eventually meets with a big boss in a white suit. The approach is entirely different though, owning considerably to that bigger budget. “Desperado” is Robert Rodriguez essentially redoing his indie debut with Hollywood money.

Another element carried over from “El Mariachi” is a thin plot. In fact “Desperado” may have even less story than its predecessor. The movie is basically a series of escalating action scenes. El Mariachi shows up in one place, kills a ton of dudes. After a brief respite, he then continues on to another place, where he proceeds to kill a ton of other dudes. (49 in total, if you were curious.) This ever growing level of violence continues until, oddly, the end. The audience is deprived of a dramatic showdown between heroes and villains. It was not planned this way. The MPAA demanded so many cuts to the final fight that Rodriguez simply decided cutting the sequence all together was the easier option.

As I've previously noted, the driving force behind Rodriguez' entire aesthetic is coolness.  Expectantly, the director aggressively pursues coolness in “Desperado.” This is apparent from the earliest scenes. When Steve Buscemi regales the bar patrons, we are treated to a highly stylized flashback/fantasy sequences, bodies tossed through the air in a dreamy fashion while El Mariachi's face remains obscured in shadows. Later, the director throws in some more slow-motion, emphasizing scenes of people chasing after each other on the street. (One of these moments, in particular, is directly quoted from El's first adventure.) There's a fade-out to white, frenzied camera movement taking us into the middle of a melee, and soft dissolves. The movie unironically employs the cliché of the heroes walking away from a giant explosion, it's that damn cool.

Afforded a decent sized budget for the first time, Robert Rodriguez is allowed to create his most elaborate action scenes yet. There's an almost balletic fashion to the violence in the movie. El's giant sawed-off shotgun sends guys flying through the air. Later, Banderas similarly kicks a guy upward towards the ceiling, blasting him as he goes. A hand canon is grabbed in mid-toss, explosions blow goons upwards. Banderas even moves like a dancer sometimes, such as when he flicks his wrists when firing his pistols. The violence is so stylized, it borders cartoonish. Such as when our hero's face is sprayed by viscera from an exploding head in slow motion. Or when El's brothers-in-arms appear with guitar cases that double as machine guns and rocket launchers.

In fact, “Desperado” is so concerned with new ways to decimate its collection of faceless henchmen, that it doesn't leave room for much else. Rodriguez' first two movies, no matter their other qualities, did deal with the ultimately diminishing effects of violence. “Desperado” is, in many ways, a celebration of cinematic violence. Rodriguez would rarely look back from this perspective going forward, devoting a large portion of his upcoming career to epic bloodshed. There's really only one scene in the film were you get a hint of this lesson. A moment where Banderas talks about how it's easier to pull a trigger than play a guitar. While the film flirts with showing the hard choices made in a life of violence, via a subplot involving a young guitar playing boy El meets, it's mostly about ass-kicking.

In fact, the biggest difference between “El Mariachi” and “Desperado” is in its ending. Back when he was still played by Carlos Gallardo, the mariachi didn't get a happy ending. He was left with a dead girlfriend and a fucked-up hand. Compare this with “Desperado's” ending. El completes his revenge, taking out the last branch of the first film's drug empire. He gets to ride out of town with a gorgeous new lover. When it's suggested he may have to give up his violent ways to keep Carolina, a last minute joke dismisses this. The hero kills dozens of people and suffers no long-lasting consequences from it. If anything, he's rewarded. Which is pretty normal for action movies but definitely a different perspective from what the director showed on his last two features.

I'm, of course, reading too much into it. “Desperado” is not that deep, by design. It's about bad-ass people doing bad-ass things. This goal is achieved thanks to its top notch cast. “Desperado” would turn Antonio Banderas into an action hero and a movie star. Really, it was only a matter of time. Banderas sweats charisma out of every pour. You can't take his eyes off him, as every movement and gesture just oozes with stylistic cool. His physicality is impressive, as he performs every action movie dive and jump with grace. Yet he's also good with a comedic line. And the actor has plenty of smolder to spare.

Banderas, a gorgeous specimen, is a big reason why “Desperado” will always rank among the sexiest movies for me. The other reason is Salma Hayek, who would also become a star following her appearance here. Hayek is, obviously, one of the most stunning woman to ever make a career in Hollywood. Her character is introduced by causing a car crash, simply by walking down the street, among the most realistic introductions in any film. Hayek isn't just a goddess, as her performance has a wit and sense of fun to it perfectly suited to the project. Her and Banderas have a burning chemistry that drives the entire second act of the film. Needless to say, their sex scene is immensely erotic.

The supporting cast is stacked too. Several Rodrigeuz regulars make their first appearance here. Steve Buscemi is hilarious, adding his typically sarcastic and jittery charm to a role specifically written for him, to the point that the character's name is “Buscemi.” Cheech Marin brings a nicely sleazy grit to the bartender. Though Danny Trejo says nothing as knife-wielding assassin Navajas, the actor absolutely makes an impression on the viewer. With that craggy face, distinctive chest tattoo, and obvious tough guy aptitude, he could do nothing but stand in a room and still come off as a total bad-ass. Going forward, it's going to become more common for Rodriguez' movies to be stuffed full of recognizable character actors.

Not every performance is that good. One must discuss Quentin Tarantino: Actor. While the director's oxygen-sucking, hammy acting has occasionally been well utilized, it's really easy for him to become annoying. Rodriguez essentially has his friend Quentin march on-screen, vigorously deliver a vulgar joke, and then has the brains to immediately kill his character off. Lastly, Joaquim de Almeida is a somewhat limp villain. The script gives him over-the-top behavior, like shooting his own henchman for fun. Yet de Almeida seems more irritated than outright villainous. The part was initially offered to Raul Julia, who was too sick at the time to take it and would die before production began. But it's easy to imagine him doing fantastic things in the part.

While not exactly an enormous blockbuster, “Desperado” did more than well enough at the box office to recoup its seven million dollar budget. It would find an even more enthusiastic audience on home video, quickly becoming one of the blood-soaked, shoot-em-up favorites of the nineties. With a rocking soundtrack partially provided by Los Lobos, “Desperado” largely meets its goal of being as sexy, cool, and action-packed as it possibly can be. Without ever slipping into self-parody, it's a ridiculous and ridiculously entertaining action picture. [Grade: B+]

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