Film can be an expensive business, something perhaps easy to forget nowadays when directors like Steven Soderbergh are shooting features, albeit it with expensive crew and lighting setups etc., with devices that hundreds of millions of us have in our pockets every day. But before digital photography and smartphones lowered the barrier of entry so dramatically it took substantial sums of money. Darren Aronofsky’s Pi had a production budget of around $60,000: a large sum for an individual but a pittance for Hollywood. Less expensive yet, and similarly shot on black and white film due to its substantially lower cost, was Kevin Smith’s Clerks, costing around $27,500.
In the “how did they do that?!” budget to success stakes, though, one filmmaker particularly stands out: Robert Rodriguez. His breakthrough feature, in colour, had a production budget of a scarcely believable $7,225 (at that level every dollar counts). And apparently eager to create his legend early, he had an odd method of financing it. American Movie’s Mark Borchardt may have gone for the more traditional “work low-paying jobs until a rich relative dies” approach, and Kevin Smith sold his belongings and maxed-out credit cards, but Robert Rodriguez raised more than half of his budget by participating in clinical trials: talk about really putting yourself into your work.
The film, of course, was El Mariachi, the first of what would eventually become a trilogy and the start of quite an eclectic career, genre-wise, with his action and vampire films giving way to a number of children’s films, Grindhouse pastiches, comic book adaptations and most recently big budget studio sci-fi with Battle Angel: Alita. But it’s the gun-toting guitar player we’re interested in here as we look at El Mariachi and Desperado (if you’d like to hear our thoughts on the third part of the trilogy then please check out our recent Once Upon a Time episode).
So, to business. Mariachi films: go!
Rodriguez is Texan but his parents are Mexican, and this provided him one way to keep costs down on his first film: shoot in Spanish, in Mexico. Until it came to the attention of Columbia the film had actually been intended for the Mexican straight-to-video market.
Reinol Martínez’s Azul survives an attempt on his life in a jail cell, organised by local narco, Moco (Peter Marquardt). Azul escapes, taking with him his guitar case full of guns, and heads to Moco’s city with revenge on his mind. Arriving in town at the same time is Carlos Gallardo’s mariachi, seeking work and toting a nearly identical guitar case, though this one being used for its intended purpose. Oh no, I hope some unlikely guitar-case related mistaken identity mix-up does not occur.
You can imagine where it goes from here, and it’s not fixing the cable. As he is chased across town by Moco’s goons, led by the magnificently-moustached Jaime de Hoyos as Bigotón (which in Spanish is just “big moustache man”), the unfortunate mariachi is forced to kill to save his life, before he meets, then falls in love with, Consuelo Gómez’s Domino, which eventually brings him face to face with both Moco and tragedy.
So plot-wise it’s hardly setting the world alight, and with a cast with a large number of non-professionals (often townsfolk to help get them onside with an initially unpopular production) it’s no great shakes in the acting stakes, either (though both Gallardo and Gómez are plenty likeable).
But it’s the low budget and somewhat scrappy production that makes it so successful. Is it a masterpiece? No, by no means. But it’s a very assured first feature, and it has a very appealing rawness and vibrancy that go a long way to sanding off the rough edges and making its slight plot more exciting than it has any right to be.
Before we move on to its considerably glossier sequel, I’ll just say that perhaps the most interesting thing about El Mariachi is the story of its production, in particular the inventive ways Rodriguez found to not spend money, like replacing a dolly with him holding the camera while sitting in a wheelchair. If you have the DVD it’s definitely worth looking at the extras.
And one final nugget: Rodriguez’s minuscule $7,225 spend was actually $1,775 under budget. Wowsers.
Three years later, and with the better part of seven million dollars more to spend on it, Rodriguez returns to the Mariachi character, if not the actor. Antonio Banderas picks up the guitar case, and this time around he’s much happier with the case being full of guns.
Apparently out to kill all drug lords, he’s going after a kingpin called Bucho, stymied somewhat by not knowing what he looks like. We do, however. He looks like Joaquim de Almeida, because that’s who’s playing him. Mariachi is aided in this by his friend Buscemi, played by, checks notes Steve Buscemi, goddamn it Chad, I though I told you to sub edit this, he can’t possibly be called… you’re sure? Jesus.
Anyway, aided by Buscemi he starts shaking the trees and seeing what falls out, and that’s largely Bucho’s goons and automatic weapons. During one exchange he saves the life of Salma Hayek’s bookstore and cafe owner Carolina and the two strike up a relationship, however this will be complicated by the shocking coincidence that she’s kinda-sorta in a relationship with Bucho. A coincidence only topped by the revelation of Bucho’s true identity uncovered in the final confrontation with Mariachi, which is, intentionally, I’m sure, straight out of a telenovela.
While plot in this sort of thing is never really a primary concern, even by the genre’s low standards this is a bit of a muddle, and frankly a bit of step down from El Mariachi, a trend line that unfortunately continued downwards with Once Upon A Time in Mexico.
However having more budget, and, well, a crew, does allow for a few upgrades. While no-one’s really being stretched here, no-one’s going to say no to Banderas and Hayek’s involvement, and bringing Guillermo Navarro on as cinematographer, who would go on to a number of fruitful Del Toro collaborations, lends for a nice looking slice of action. And, of course, he has the very obvious advantage of shooting on 35mm film, and not the 3.5mm film used in El Mariachi.
Now, I’m not sure at this point I’ve got all that much more to tell you about Desperado – it’s a very slickly executed, enjoyable action flick, owing a fair amount to the 80’s excess heyday of the genre as opposed to the watered down PG friendly trend that would have been in full swing even back when this was created. Sure, the plot’s barely worth bothering about, but there’s enough charisma from the leads to bluster through and solid supporting turns from the actors and the pyrotechnics.
Compared to El Mariachi you do rather miss out on spotting the moments of budget-stretching ingenuity, and the more coherent plot, but gain a whole bucket of slickness. Which is better? That’s perhaps a matter of taste. I’d recommend you watch both and make your own mind up.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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