Desperado (1995)

Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez.

“A guy comes into a bar, walks up to the bartender and says: ‘Bartender, I got me a bet for you’.”

The Disc

The second disc in the Reel Collection ‘deluxe’ two-disc set, presented in the cool film cannister and cardboard case.

Despite being the second film in the series, it’s boxed up as Desperado and El Mariachi, though I guess that makes sense from a marketing point of view – 99% of people who bought this bought it for Desperado. Or the gimmicky film cannister.

As with El Mariachi, there’s a commentary by Rodriguez, a featurette entitled Anatomy Of A Shootout, which focuses on the big gunfight in the bar, as well as filmographies, a trailer and a sneak peek at Once Upon A Time In Mexico, the final film in the El Mariachi trilogy.

Also, and I genuinely didn’t notice this until I started this review, there’s a little lift-up flap in the case which hides a pretty iconic image of Antonio Banderas and his twin pistols, but also four great little ‘collector’s cards’ – stills from the film with trivia on the back (I’ve left them in the cellophane, but I’m really tempted to crack them open!).

Why Did I Get This?

As I said in the Late Review for El Mariachi (if you haven’t already, you can read that here), I’m a sucker for a gimmicky box set, and I loved the films. I don’t think I loved them enough to actually watch them after buying this release, for some reason, but seeing them back has reminded my just how exciting I found them as a teenager.

Also, I think this film is a strong contender for having the sexiest cast in cinema history, and I still have very strong feelings about Salma Hayek.

Let’s play!

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will contain spoilers for the movie, so if you want to avoid them, scroll straight down to the next heading!

We’re straight into this one – no credits, just Steve Buscemi wearing dusty Western-style clobber walking into a dingy, amber-lit Mexican taverna and ordering a beer.

The bartender is Cheech Marin of Cheech & Chong fame – someone I never really knew but figured was kind of a big deal from his appearances in a bunch of late nineties films – I realise now I was basically thinking of this and From Dusk Till Dawn, and he was probably just a buddy of Robert Rodriguez.

Anyway, while drinking his “piss-warm Chango”, Buscemi (his character name as well as real-life surname, for some reason), enthrals the bartender and his buddy Tavo (Tito Larriva), with a lurid tale of the massacre he witnessed in a similar bar a few towns over by a terrifying Mexican carrying a guitar case filled with weapons. His story is peppered with flashbacks which are violent and stylish as hell while also being quite cartoony – you can practically imagine giant “POW!”, “BLAM!”, “SPLAT!” and “CRUNCH!” cards as nameless goons are dispatched by a broodingly-lit Antonio Banderas and an impressive collection of hand cannons.

Right off the bat, this smacks of 1995 – that period in cinema when everyone was trying to ape Tarantino with snarky scripts, playful timelines and lashings of the old ultraviolence – to the point where I’m wondering if QT himself had a hand in giving the script a little once-over?

Certainly by the time he turns up for his cameo as a low-level money mule for the cartel, it’s got his fingerprints all over it, as he gleefully tells a joke involving a fella pissing all over a bar for a bet. In fairness, he tells it well, but his punchline is one-upped by Cheech Marin who adds his own topper by shooting the guy standing next to him in the face.

But I’m getting ahead of myself – after Buscemi’s tale ends, he tells Marin and his collection of lowlifes that El Mariachi was heading this way, then walks out of the bar as they contemplate their impending doom. Or just turn back to their beers, little of Column A, little of Column B.

And now we see El Mariachi – and unlike his predecessor, he’s actually playing and performing within the first few minutes of the film!

Alongside two fellow mariachi (one of whom is Carlos Gallardo – the original El Mariachi) – more from them later – Banderas performs to a packed club, wowing the crowd and even saving a damsel in distress from a pair of bad ‘uns with a swing of his headstock without missing a note.

This all gives us a wonderful introduction to El Mariachi’s character, his sense of fairness and honour, and (last but not least), his musical talents – with Banderas playing on this track, but music provided in this film by Los Lobos. It also plays out over the credits – which this time include “Written, Produced and Directed by Robert Rodriguez”. It’s still not quite “Shot, Chopped and Scored by Robert Rodriguez, but he’s getting there.

But just as the trio pause for applause, there’s nothing but silence… then slow clapping… and out from the back of the crowd steps Moco – the villain from El Mariachi – who lights a match on the stubble of his right-hand man (Mexican Freddie Mercury), before we’re treated to a flashback within a dream sequence, and a recreation of the finale of the previous film as Moco blasts El Mariachi’s hand apart while he stands over his dead love.

The recreation is only brief, but gives anyone who’s seen El Mariachi a reminder that we’re watching the same character, and anyone who hasn’t seen it gets a bit of background to why exactly our hero is out for revenge. It’s neat, and it’s cool that Rodriguez got the original cast back for such brief, silent cameos – including Consuelo Gomez, who has to do nothing except lie on the ground with her eyes closed while Antonio Banderas holds her longingly. Nice work if you can get it.

El Mariachi wakes from his dream to welcome Buscemi to his hotel room, and they discuss briefly how Moco was basically an underling for someone higher in the cartel and until the head of the gang is dead, El Mariachi won’t be satisfied. It’s an exposition dump, for sure, but it hints at a really interesting background for the two men which, frankly, I’d love to see more of. How exactly did a wise-ass American end up acting as a herald for the musical Mexican merchant of murder (that’s never catching on, but I do like a bit of alliteration)? How long have they been doing this? Alright, there’s an argument that it’s better left unsaid, but man the possibilities are tantalising.

And while we’re on about memorable characters with undiscussed backgrounds…

I can’t remember whether I first saw Danny Trejo in this or in Heat, but anyone who’s seen him will never forget him – and his character in Desperado (essentially a spy for the Colombians keeping an eye on the Mexican cartel’s work and trying to eliminate Banderas’ spanner in the works), is certainly the more memorable. Alright, so his first appearance sees him leaning out of the window of a truck passing our hero like an angry dog enjoying the breeze in its fur while twiddling a throwing knife, but again, he’s got that cartoonish simplicity with the black leather waistcoat and collection of blades over a bare, tattooed chest and menacing silence that just screams BAD GUY.

What made me laugh on this viewing is the fact that his costume (or lack of it), appears to have severely limited the possibilities for his inevitable death scene as despite having dozens of rounds shot in his general direction, the only two bullet hits are wherever the effects teams could fit a squib and a bloodbag… so he gets a round in each pectoral under the waistcoat, then slumps out of view.

Which again is weird, because one of the more notorious gags the crew employed on this film was the ‘Guacamole Gun’ – essentially an air pistol that fires fake blood at an actor and removes the need for a squib. It’s used a lot throughout Desperado (although apparently a few instances were removed following a battle with censors), most notably with Banderas’ hand getting shot in the flashback and Tarantino’s mate and Cheech Marin getting it in the face, and I imagine it would’ve worked well against Trejo’s chest, but a decision was made, I guess.

Anyway, ‘Guacamole Gun’. Look it up, sounds fun.

Right, back to the film – we cut to our new villain Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida), observing a brutal hand-to-hand fight which ends with the first nightmarish leg snap I remember seeing on film, followed by a nasty broken neck, and another little exposition dump where we discover while Bucho is the big cheese in Mexico, he’s expecting new business from Colombia in the near future and can’t risk any Antonio Banderas-shaped upsets.

Again, it’s neat storytelling – all the pieces are set up quickly and efficiently without leaving too long between bursts of excitement. While Desperado is about 20 minutes longer than its predecessor, it barely feels it because it rattles along, establishing its characters and the rules of its universe pretty damn quick – almost like it’s a Hollywood caricature of El Mariachi where everything’s turned up to 11 and just makes a little less sense than it should but that’s alright because there’s going to be a fucking awesome shootout in a minute.

And speaking of awesome shootouts, we go from Bucho’s place back to Cheech Marin’s bar. Tarantino’s done his joke, his mate’s been splattered, and he’s been taken to collect his money from a secret room behind the worst toilet cubicle this side of Trainspotting.

After he’s gone, Baderas turns up and after a few moments of tension, an almighty shootout erupts, destroying the bar (which looks very much like the one from El Mariachi), and pretty much everyone in it.

Yes, it’s ridiculous. Yes, it’s over the top, and yes, there is a point where Antonio Banderas appears to be throwing the bullets out of his dual pistols, but by gum it’s entertaining.

The goons in this movie all tend to have miniature machine guns (I want to say Uzis, but I expect to be corrected), and throw bullets away like they’re candy (a line that’s stuck in my head from another Robert Rodriguez flick), but they couldn’t hit a burro’s arse with a banjo.

There’s a great extra on the disc which shows Rodriguez, Banderas and a few crew members basically wandering round the bar prior to shooting and planning it out/making it up as they go along, with some storyboards he’s drawn ahead of time. Between the choppy edits, the inventive gags (such as going up against one last guy with a succession of empty guns), and the Dutch angles, there’s a kind of playful energy that really makes Rodriguez stand out as an action director.

After the bloodbath at the bar, we’re introduced to Salma Hayek’s Carolina – and it’s really something of an entrance, as she crosses the street, literally stopping traffic as two drivers are so distracted by her million-watt smile and bare midriff, they smash into each other. It’s a bright, light counterpoint to the violence and brutality we’ve just seen, but like the two careless drivers, her story and El Mariachi’s crash right into each other as he takes a bullet in the arm then blows Tavo’s brains out in the street (another hit from the ‘Guacamole Gun’), while Danny Trejo watches from a distance.

She takes to her bloodied situation like a duck to water, removing the bullet from Banderas’ arm while reading from a medical textbook, and taking to our hero quickly enough to buy him a guitar then take him to bed in a love scene that simultaneously manages to be sexy and cringeworthy. With that cast, it would struggle to be anything other than the former, but it earns the latter with its soft focus shots, candlelit surroundings and ridiculous twiddly electric guitar throughout. Worse still are the behind-the-scenes tales of Hayek in tears with nerves throughout filming of her first love scene, resulting in only a few seconds of usable footage at a time – though by all accounts there was never any pressure or anything untoward, and she worked again on several occasions with Rodriguez, not least as a vampire stripper in 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn, suggesting there were no grudges held.

Before the love scene though, we have another little catch-up with Buscemi before he’s murdered in front of Banderas by Danny Trejo’s flying blades, then Trejo takes out a car full of Bucho’s men with relative ease before succumbing to suspiciously placed bullet wounds and his body taken back to the compound.

Banderas is wounded in the scuffle, and bumps into a street urchin in a yellow t-shirt carrying a guitar that he’s seen a couple of times previously – like a Mexican Charlie Brown. Turns out he’s switching guitars with Bucho’s men in a drug pickup arrangement, which is how El Mariachi discover’s Carolina’s links to the villain.

Like Domino in El Mariachi, she’s a strong, confident woman, but also inextricably linked to the bad guy. Carolina, it turns out, makes $50,000 a year from Bucho for letting his men drop off and pick up ‘things’ from her bookshop cafe – a failing business, but quite honestly, a set I’d quite happily live in providing the books are real.

Bucho visits the cafe while Banderas hides out of sight and reloads, but holds off from popping up from behind the counter and killing him – something Carolina is grateful for, and which leads to the OTT love scene.

Immediately following that though, is an assault/chase/massacre, as Bucho’s goons try to storm the bookshop (he realises she’s hiding our hero while being ridden by a floosie, in a funny counterpoint to their romantic love scene), and all end up on the wrong side of bullets and grenades.

This is where we get one of the coolest shots in action cinema history, and one which has led to countless imitations, parodies and homages, as our tooled up hero and heroine walk away from an enormous explosion in slow motion…

From the rooftop, El Mariachi takes aim at Bucho, but can’t pull the trigger. He won’t say why, but once safe, agrees to call his mariachi friends Campa (Carlos Gallardo), and Quino (Albert Michel Jr), to help him face off against Bucho’s army.

So they turn up – one on a church bus, the other in the weirdest little truck I’ve ever seen – and we get a showdown in a part of town that’s completely empty except for the mini mariachi, a few abandoned cars and some handily-placed crash mats.

And the whole thing kicks off with Banderas and his buddies side by side as he cricks his neck and says…

“Let’s play.”

What follows is a great little shootout as Campa’s twin machine gun guitar cases fail to make a dent on the armoured limousine containing the bad guys, but do a decent job exploding their chests, while Quino’s rocket launcher guitar case destroys the vehicles and causes a bunch of stunt performers to bounce over cameras away from explosions. All the while, Banderas is firing his twin pistols and shooting people off rooftops, through car windows, and so on.

It’s all very old-school, with big falls and bloodbags, and it’s over very quickly with the Campa and Quino getting killed off and mini Mariachi taking a bullet.

After taking the kid to hospital, our hero and heroine take a drive to Bucho’s compound, and we’re in for a retread of the finale of El Mariachi… but not before the big reveal that Bucho is actually El Mariachi’s older brother! That’s why he couldn’t shoot him after seeing his face. He threatens to kill Carolina, out come Banderas’ hidden weapons, de Almeida is killed and we fade to white as El Mariachi fires towards the camera.

One suspects this was a budgetary decision.

Anyway, the kid survives, our hero walks off alone down the road with his guitar case, then Hayek pulls up and tells him to get in. One final gag as he throws away his weapons only to have her reverse back and pick them up (“Just in case… it’s a long ride to the next town.”), and we’re into the credits.

Thoughts On The Movie

What a difference a couple of years and a few million dollars makes, eh?

I’m really glad to have seen this again, and while the slicker look and the extra 20 minutes make it feel less scrappy and charming than El Mariachi, the cast and the budget really help you get lost in a – frankly – bonkers world.

If I were a betting man, I’d say the script feels like it’s had a polish by someone other than Rodriguez and would probably be pointing a finger at Tarantino. There’s less of the melancholy about loss of heritage and more zingy quips and one-liners than we had in El Mariachi. Not that that’s a bad thing, and it was likely a requirement for the step up to the Hollywood big leagues (and getting his hands on that $7m budget). Regardless of why it happened, I still think it works – there’s a surprising amount of humour in this movie, and everyone involved knows exactly what picture they’re making.

The running joke about the new bulletproof car, the gag where none of the villains know the phone number to warn their mates not to shoot Danny Trejo, Buscemi’s snark and the playfulness between Hayek and Banderas are all great, while de Almeida exudes a real menace but there’s a levity to his lighter moments so he comes across as far more charming than El Mariachi’s Moco.

Great to see Gallardo back, too even if only briefly, but while there’s a lot I love about this film, I’m still thinking about the untapped potential to explore the backstory between our hero and Buscemi…

Verdict

Still feels fresh and exciting, and there’s no denying Banderas makes for an incredible and memorable action hero.

This wasn’t the first high-octane, blood and bullets revenge pic, obviously, but it feels like Desperado really set a precedent for the mid to late-nineties on how action films looked and felt, pretty much until The Matrix turned everything on its head in 1999.

Recommended.

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