Tuesday, August 28, 2012

El Mariachi

The making of El Mariachi (1992) is a story cherished by aspiring filmmakers. For $7,000, Robert Rodriguez wrote, directed, produced, shot, and conducted the special effects (apparently refusing to act in it, according to IMDB trivia, because there would be no one left to operate the camera) for this movie about gangs, drug dealers, and mistaken identity involving a hitman and a guitar player. The most interesting tidbit is how Rodriguez raised a good portion of the money by signing up as a test subject for medical experiments.

El Mariachi looks like a movie shot for very little money. At times, it looks like a home movie (disclosure: I watched it on a high-definition TV, so I'm not sure if that had any effect on the picture quality), the editing is a bit choppy, the performances are clearly by non-professional actors, and the story itself is rather slight, and yet despite its roughness, El Mariachi proves a thoroughly entertaining and exciting motion picture that demonstrates Rodriguez's talent.

A traveling guitar player, or mariachi (Carlos Gallardo) arrives in a small Mexican town about the same time an escaped criminal known as Azul (Reinol Martinez) shows up to take on the local drug lord who betrayed him, Moco (Peter Marquardt). Moco sends his gang to kill Azul, but they only know he wears black and carries a guitar case filled with guns. The gang comes across the mariachi who also wears black and carries a guitar case, and in a case of mistaken identity, the mariachi finds himself on the run, eventually getting help from bartender Domino (Consuelo Gomez), who has a connection to Moco.

What Rodriquez lacks in budgetary resources, he more than makes up for with energy and style. Even in this low-budget setting, Rodriguez demonstrates his flair for action choreography, and we get a number of great action scenes and shootouts. My favorite is when the mariachi is first chased by Moco's gang from his hotel room, and eventually, he kills four of them. I like it because the mariachi is portrayed not as an action-movie superhero with perfect skills and moves but as a confused, desperate innocent, and this gives the action more tension than these types of scenes typically generate.There's also a nice sequence in which Azul is stopped by the gang and forced to open his guitar case because if they find guns, they'll kill him.

The film also has an underplayed sense of humor. I got a chuckle every time the film cut away to Domino's dog, which despite warnings of its viciousness, is always lying on the floor asleep or standing over the mariachi when he wakes up. There's also a running gag involving Moco and one of his lieutenants whose face Moco uses to strike a match that has a satisfying payoff at the end. In his later pictures, particularly the likes of Grindhouse and Machete, Rodriguez displays a tendency to play up the camp elements and gross-out gags, but here, he's more restrained and less obvious. His story is limited but effective, and he sees it through.

Today, with so many action movies built on mega-sized budgets and special effects, some good and some bad, El Mariachi is refreshing in its more straightforward manner. It's simply exciting and stylish.


  1. I thought it had a strong Hitchcockian feel. You know, "the wrong man" and such. I love the remake "Desperado" for its style, but "El Mariachi" wins for story, I think.

    1. I agree. I think Hitchcock would have liked the mistaken identity driving action. It certainly makes the movie more involving than "Desperado" because the mariachi is a confused innocent rather than a cold gunfighter. He's easier to identify with and not just another action hero out for revenge.