There's a moment early in El Mariachi, the micro-budget 1992 movie that introduced Robert Rodriguez to the world, where our hero, an unnamed wandering musician, asks a bartender if he can work there, singing for tips. The asshole bartender laughs in his face and says that he'd never pay one guy when he already has a whole band. Rodriguez then zips his camera over to a kid sitting in the corner with his Casio. The kid hits a button, and a chintzy eight-bit approximation of mariachi music echoes forth.
In that moment, we're clearly supposed to sympathize with the mariachi, the latest in a long family line, who's trying to play his traditional music while these young fuckers with cheap keyboards keep stealing all his work opportunities. So it's pretty weird, then, that Rodriguez, a guy who once did everything he could to scrape together the money for a grimy little action movie, is now shooting entire movies in shitty-looking CGI dreamworlds, filming everything on his Austin soundstage. With last year's Machete Kills and this year's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Rodriguez has effectively become the doofy kid with the Casio. But El Mariachi was a guy-with-a-guitar movie, in every sense of the term.
Everything about the El Mariachi story is just terribly romantic. Rodriguez, a Mexican-American kid in his mid-twenties, shot the movie for $7,000, some of which he raised by letting medical technicians do research on his movie. His friend Carlos Gallardo, who also raised some of his money, played the lead. The villain, meanwhile, was a vaguely James Spader-looking white guy who Rodriguez met in those medical studies, and who didn't even speak Spanish, which meant he didn't understand the cartoonish threats he was sneering. Rodriguez figured the movie might find a home in the Mexican straight-to-video market, but Columbia saw it, liked it, and picked it up, all just in time for Rodriguez to jump on the wave of early-'90s indie filmmakers. In the years that followed, he'd crew up with Quentin Tarantino and get real-movie jobs; his second film would be 1995's Desperado, a way, way bigger-budgeted El Mariachi sequel with Antonio Banderas taking over for Gallardo.
But when you take all that context away, this is a fun and eager-to-please little movie, a proudly ridiculous piece of action-flick filmmaking. The hero is a musician who, to the best of our knowledge, has never picked up a gun before the events of the film, and yet he easily handles entire mobs of hired killers who all have insanely terrible aim. It's an old joke that none of the henchmen in movies like Commando know how to shoot, but the Mariachi moment where our hero runs between two assailants and somehow causes them to shoot each other is some all-time wonderful bullshit. Similarly, he's able to happily seduce a bar owner and play music in her bar while knowing full well that the guy who bought her bar is trying to kill him. And when armed goons invade his hotel room, he returns to get his guitar, like Indiana Jones reaching back to grab his hat. On the way past the hotel owner who ratted him out, he winks and points finger-guns. Later, he comes back for his deposit. Because fuck it.
The entire movie hinges on a case of mistaken identity, like an episode of Three's Company or something. The iconic image of Rodriguez's Mariachi movies is of a mysterious stranger with a guitar case full of guns. But at least in the first movie, the actual Mariachi isn't that guy. He's just a musician who ambles into town at the wrong moment and who turns out to be pretty great at not dying. The guy with the guns in his case is Azul, a criminal rival to our cackling villain, and he's really no better than the main bad guy. Azul kidnaps pretty ladies and, at one point, laughingly leaves our hero to die. Moco, the main villain, knows he's in town to settle an old debt, so he sends his guys after the guy dressed in black with a guitar case, and they end up going after the wrong guy. But Azul and the mariachi really look nothing alike, and Moco could've saved himself a whole lot of trouble if he'd just mentioned that Azul had a mustache.
So it's a silly story, but it's a proudly silly one. Rodriguez seems to delight in the fakeness of his scenarios. Even with his tiny budget, he figures out ways to do some impressive-enough stunts and to stage some gunfights that are generally easier to follow than a lot of what Hollywood cranks out in the post-Bourne era. If anything, the paltry budget does a lot to help the movie feel real, especially with Rodriguez using untrained locals to play many of his ancillary characters. Moco probably would have a henchman crew full of local teenagers, so it makes sense when we see that most of his guys are way too young to be doing this. It also helps explain why these guys are so bad at shooting; most of them probably have as little experience as the mariachi.
In the title role, I actually like what Gallardo does better than what Banderas would do with the same character in two successive movies. Gallardo isn't a bogglingly handsome and icy-cool Spaniard, and he shouldn't be. Instead, he's a good-looking kid in over his head, getting by on silly charm and split-second ingenuity. He has no idea why all these bad guys are after him, but he's adaptable enough to take things as they come. And when he makes it to the end of the movie, riding out of town on a motorcycle with all those guns on his back, he's finally achieved full badassity, like an achievement unlocked in a video game. He's ready to suddenly start looking like Antonio Banderas.
There are a few Rodriguez movies on Netflix right now, and they're mostly worth watching. Desperado is streaming, and it's as silly and over-the-top as you remember. From Dusk Till Dawn is on there, too, in its exploding-latex glory, as are Machete Kills and assorted Spy Kids joints. But El Mariachi, with its nonexistent production values and its real-looking people and its genial bloody silliness, is the best of the bunch. Keyboards can be great, depending on who's playing them. But Rodriguez was at his absolute best when he was trying to stretch out a pocket-change budget and trying to make his condoms full of fake blood explode convincingly.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice,GQ,Grantland, and The Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
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