Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez
“Free coconuts… I was beginning to like this town.”
The Reel Collection ‘deluxe’ two-disc set – featuring El Mariachi and the big budget remake/sequel Desperado (and you can read the Late Review of that here) – comes in a lovely film canister-style packaging, housed in a cardboard DVD case to stop it rolling off your shelf.
El Mariachi comes with a director’s commentary, short film Bedhead, the brilliant 10 Minute Film School, a trailer and filmographies.
Why Did I Get This?
Setting aside the fact I love a gimmicky box set that’s sat on my shelf for more than a decade?
I first saw El Mariachi on late night TV – I’m going to say it was BBC2, but I’m happy to be proved wrong if anyone knows better – and I instantly knew it was something special.
It looked like it was made for next to nothing (and it was – $7,000, most of which Robert Rodriguez raised by submitting himself for medical studies to test a cholesterol-lowering drug, apparently), but it was absolutely bursting with ideas and energy. I later saw Desperado, and despite not knowing or caring if it was a sequel or a remake, I was amazed by just how much difference a bigger budget and a few years could make but how his style had remained the same.
Got to be honest, I’m excited to watch this one.
The Late Review
As always, the Late Review will contain spoilers for the movie. If you want to avoid them, scroll straight down to the next heading!
Right from the opening establishing shots of a grotty little Mexican police station – all choppy cuts and weird angles – Rodriguez marks out his shooting style as confident and showy. Yes, the film looks cheap as hell, but he wrings every last cent out of it, and as the film goes one that frugality helps create unique little moments, decisions and images that some million dollar directors couldn’t manage on their best day.
The pre-title sequence is an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Azul – Reinol Martinez – by men working for big bad, white shirt-wearing villain Moco – Peter Marquardt, who spends the majority of his screentime getting his hair and nails done while lounging in a pool, which is nice work if you can get it.
See, Moco’s screwed Azul out of some money and left him to languish in the slammer and figured killing him would be the easier and cheaper option but he hasn’t counted on Azul’s network of criminals ensuring everyone else in the jailhouse (a) is on his side and (b) has a gun.
Now, when I say these characters have guns, they do. Except some don’t. Rodriguez managed to convince local police to lend him a couple of small machine guns to make the movie with, but the rest were mainly water pistols which had been painted to look like realistic weapons.
The cops’ guns didn’t take well to firing blanks though, so jammed after one shot – not ideal when you’re a Mexican baddie mowing down a table filled with more Mexican baddies – but that’s where Rodriguez’ powers of invention kicked in. More specifically, this problem forced him to get creative with his editing – looping shots, making dramatic cutaways, and so on – which not only masked the problem, but made for a really energetic and memorable style.
While the credits on later Rodriguez films became more stylised, here they’re more modest – simple white text on a black background while sombre music plays. He’s 23 years old, we’re still at the stage in his career where his credit reads “Photographed and Edited by Robert Rodriguez”, not “Shot, Chopped and Scored by Robert Rodriguez”.
Upon leaving the jailhouse, Azul’s men present him with his trademark – a guitar case filled with weapons. Well, I say filled – it feels like most of them would be rattling around whenever you took a step…
Still, it’s undeniably a cool idea, and part of Azul’s trademark – he always wears black, and he always carried a guitar case filled with weapons.
Cut to our nameless hero, El Mariachi (Carlos Gallardo), wandering past a turtle on a sunbaked highway trying to catch a lift to civilisation. Nobody stops, so he keeps walking to the next town where he’s presented with a free, ice-cold coconut to drink from and assumes his luck is improving.
In a sort of whiny noir voiceover, El Mariachi explains that he only ever wanted to be the best and live up to his father and grandfather before him, living for his music and dying with his guitar in his hands. There’s a romantic streak in him a mile wide, as he laments for a lost time when musicians were considered gods, but are now replaced by sombrero-wearing dickheads with electric keyboards.
This latter moment comes after a fun interlude as he asks at a local bar for work and is told by the barman he doesn’t need a guy with a guitar when he’s got a whole Mariachi band at the push of a button – it’s played for laughs, with sped up footage, breakneck editing and odd, Sam Raimi angles, but there’s a sense that Rodriguez is seriously trying to make a point about how Mexican national heritage is being forgotten, a point he’d make at great pains in the closing film of the trilogy.
But back to his debut.
Not long after a forlorn El Mariachi leaves the bar, Azul turns up with his case of tricks and mows down everyone but the barman, as a message to Moco, who runs pretty much everything in town.
So now, descriptions of a man wearing black and carrying a guitar case full of weapons are doing the rounds, and only Moco knows what Azul looks like – and that’s how El Mariachi ends up in trouble.
Checking in at a hotel, he crashes out while the landlord phones Moco and alerts him – again, sped up footage as he moves from the desk and dials the phone, in a recurring gag that actually gets a bigger laugh each of the three times it happens. Well, it did from me, anyway.
As he crashes out on his bed, we’re treated to a peek inside the nightmares of El Mariachi – he’s wandering rounds a deserted town that’s little more than rubble.
A small boy bounces a basketball which booms like a bass turned up to 11 (a neat trick where the score matches a random onscreen action, probably another nod to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead), before the ball turns into a severed human head and El Mariachi wakes up in a sweat just as Moco’s men arrive.
We get a few pretty breathless chase scenes after this one, which tend to show off how small the town is, but how busy it is too – for most of them, our hero jumps into the back of two or three different flatbed trucks for a block or so, then jumps out and is pretty much safe.
On this occasion, he gets a few blocks away and realises he’s left his guitar in his hotel – not ideal for a man who wants to make a living by playing music – so he returns to the flophouse, gives an angry and funny little look to the bloke who shopped him, then collects his guitar as the fella shouts to the bad guys and shops him again.
And here’s where we get the best stunt of the movie.
Taking a decorative mace from the wall of his hotel room, El Mariachi whips it around a telephone wire and uses it as a zipline to get into the street, bouncing off the front of a bus and riding on its bonnet until it reaches a red light, then hopping off using another flatbed truck as a step.
Again, this is a masterclass in cheap filmmaking ingenuity, as Rodriguez uses a zoom lens to make the bus look closer than it is, and more clever editing to make the stunt look more dangerous than it is. He reveals in the extras that the gadget they used to dangle Gallardo over the street was commissioned from a local blacksmith and cost the princely sum of $12. The final result is simply brilliant, and has a sort of realism that’s reminiscent of watching an early Jackie Chan film, insofar as you could believe this guy is going to get killed on camera.
We’re treated to a few more proper bloodbags and squibs as El Mariachi is forced to kill some goons to save himself, and he knocks out Moco’s right hand man (basically a pair of sunglasses and a moustache in a plaid shirt, looking like a Mexican Freddie Mercury), by twatting him in the body and face with his guitar case.
For a man who makes a living with his guitar, he’s sure not precious about beating the hell out of people with it.
Escaping the villains for now, he heads into the town’s other bar, where he meets Domino – Consuelo Gomez – the kind of ballsy landlady who hasn’t got time for this shit, but can’t go anywhere else.
Taking pity on a poor musician – and he does look more like a struggling musician than his successor in the role, but that’s for another time – Domino lets El Mariachi hang out in her flat above the bar for a bit. While he’s upstairs, Mexican Mercury comes in and rings Moco, explaining that a man in black with a guitar case has just killed four of his men, so as soon as he leaves, she goes upstairs and threatens our hero with a letter opener until he proves he can play the guitar and sing. While he’s having a bath.
When he finally plays for the first time in the movie (around the 37 minute mark), she agrees to give him a job at her bar, and after a brief visit to Azul’s hideout (where three women corpse while pointing guns at the camera), we’re treated to a performance in the bar, after which the crowd go wild in that way where, were it a real gig, it would have ended after one track.
The next day, Azul visits the bar, and accidentally leaves carrying our hero’s guitar case – lucky for him when he gets stopped by more of Moco’s goons in the street and is facing certain death, he’s actually carrying a guitar.
Honestly, I know it shouldn’t bother me because some films are all about the suspension of disbelief, but it always bugged me that he never noticed the weight difference between a classical guitar and a case filled with bits of metal that can kill you, but hey, it’s a movie, right?
Of course, our hero is spotted while trying to return Azul’s case (though never in the same shot, as Rodriguez only bought one prop), and we get another chase round the city as he kills two more goons before taking a cool, slow-motion walk while holding a silenced machine gun on his shoulder.
Yeah, it feels like Rodriguez was aiming for iconic, and in fairness, he pretty much got it on his first go. Sure, the character’s look and design changed (alright, improved), by the second film, but still, this is a cool character and it feels like that’s what he wanted.
The film starts drawing to a close as Azul talks Domino into taking him to Moco’s compound – see, Moco is obsessed with her, and bought her the bar in an attempt to get her to love him. She goes willingly, and plays along with his plan to get his money and leave, but of course, things go sour when Moco realises she’s in love with El Mariachi.
Our hero arrives on a motorbike to find Domino and Azul dead, and face some pretty over the top ranting from Moco who shoots him in the hand, ending his career as a musician. Picking up Azul’s weapon, our hero kills Moco while his men all watch, then just leave him be – turns out they all thought he was a prick too, or Rodriguez was making a point about there being no honour among thieves, whichever you like.
We end with El Mariachi on a motorbike on a desert road with Domino’s dog on the back and a metal hand, before he tears off past a turtle.
Man, $7,000 goes a long way in 82 minutes.
Thoughts On The Film
Yes, there are plenty of influences on show here, but what an astonishing achievement this was for the 23-year-old Rodriguez. Filled with inventive tics and traits, even if they were mostly necessitated by the financial situation, it’s a stunningly confident and energetic debut.
Of course, it looks cheap, and most of the actors weren’t professional, but that all adds to the scrappy charm of the film. That being said, Gallardo and Gomez are actually pretty good, and even the bit players all have something about them to make them watchable.
The film was deemed culturally important enough to be preserved in the USA’s National Film Registry, and kickstarted a career that, while it might not have changed Hollywood forever, certainly gave millions of budding young filmmakers the inspiration they needed to channel their ideas and energy into something for people to watch and enjoy.
I’m really glad to have seen this one again, and it’s honestly better than I remember it. Really looking forward to the next part now, and while it might just be a glossy, expensive remake with a sexier cast, it would never have happened if it weren’t for this little firecracker of a movie.