I suppose the mere fact that I've never seen a movie quite like Desperado should qualify as a high compliment. After all, these days so many movies seem like so many other movies, which seemed like so many others before them, that a little originality deserves praise in and of itself.
But Robert Rodriguez, the man who wrote and directed the wonderful action flick El Mariachi for a reported $7000 (I'm still not sure I believe that figure; El Mariachi was simply too well made to have been assembled on such a paltry budget), went over the top with his sophomore effort from the moment the ink dried on his seven-million-dollar check from the studio. That's a thousand times as much money as Rodriguez spent on his debut project (although still only a drop in the bucket compared to Waterworld). What does seven million bucks buy for a guy who knows how to make an excellent film for one-thousandth the price? In a word, excess.
Buckets of blood (literally). Latin hunk Antonio Banderas in the lead. Cameos by Steve Buscemi and the patron saint of hip ultraviolence, Quentin Tarantino. Absurdist humor. Exploding cars and buildings. Rocket-launching guitar cases.
And what did Rodriguez overlook on his spending spree? Plot. Characterization. The very elements that made El Mariachi so appealing.
But don't get me wrong. I liked Desperado. The violence made me flinch (I didn't keep an accurate tally, but I'd guess Natural Born Killers had a lower body count) and the sight gags made me laugh. It's not like the guy didn't know what he was doing. Rodriguez crossbreeds the bullet ballets of Sam Peckinpah and John Woo with the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, and salts the wounds with dark humor the Coen brothers would be proud of. I just wish that Rodriguez had lavished as much attention on developing Banderas's character as he does lighting the actor's face.
The title character in El Mariachi wandered innocently into a corrupt town and found himself mistaken for a ferocious assassin who carried an automatic weapon in a guitar case. Against his will he got caught up in a deadly game and had to learn to kill to survive. You empathized with the guy. He could have been you. In Desperado the mariachi returns, played by Mr. Brooding Intensity Banderas rather than sweet-faced Carlos Ballardo (who has a bit part as a Banderas cohort lugging around a pair of lead-spraying guitar cases). This time, however, he's an avenging angel from the get-go, come to town gunning for Bucho, the sadistic drug dealer who killed the mariachi's lady love and put a bullet through the wandering minstrel's hand, thereby ending his musical career on a bitter note. Bullets fly and corpses pile up almost from the opening scene. Blood splatters, spurts, and splashes. You root for Banderas not because you identify with his character, but because he's better-groomed than the bad guys, most of whom have serious Lee Van Cleef disease.
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The sexy Spaniard's constant posing -- every other shot looks as if it was arranged with an eye toward eventually appearing on a poster -- would grow wearisome and even lapse into self-parody were it not for Banderas's surprising facility for both action and comedy. He turns even that Western movie staple, the saloon gunfight, into a firepower flamenco dance, blasting away from over his head or behind his back with pinpoint accuracy and drop-dead style. (When the goons take his bullets the guys don't just fall -- they explode backward from the impact.) Because Rodriguez has forgotten (or purposely declined) to sketch in even the tiniest details of the wayward mariachi's personality, Banderas fills in the blanks as best he can. The actor responds magnificently, revealing surprising grace and style in the action sequences, a flair for physical comedy, and simultaneously feral and vulnerable qualities during the quieter moments. If he goes a little overboard with the soulful stares, you have to forgive him. The movie would simply not have worked without him.
It still would have been interesting, though. Don't forget, this movie was made by a man who loves filmmaking so much that at one point he checked himself into a medical research lab, playing human guinea pig in order to raise money for El Mariachi. He's a published cartoonist (a Rodriguez-penned strip, Los Hooligans, ran for three years in a Mexican daily newspaper until El Mariachi's success lured him to Hollywood), and Desperado has the vitality and bigger-than-life feel of a comic book. Rodriguez consistently comes up with fresh scenes, such as the one in which a quartet of hopelessly preppie U.S. college kids on vacation gather in the doorway of a recently shot-up cantina to gape uncomprehendingly at the corpses littering the floor like empty beer bottles.
But take away Banderas and Desperado has no soul. To be sure, Rodriguez is a skilled director; his action sequences crackle with pizzazz, and he sure can move those cameras. But his characters are disappointing cliches, from Joaquim de Almeida playing yet another generic Latin drug lord to Salma Hayek as the sultry-feisty love interest (not to mention fodder for the requisite gratuitous love scene that Rodriguez handles with far less skill and originality than he does the shootouts). In his enthusiasm to both lampoon and pay homage to the Woo-Peckinpah-Leone films, Desperado's writer-director turned his back on the very elements -- clever story, sympathetic lead character -- that made his El Mariachi so much more than just another calling card for a glorified cameraman. Desperado looks great and contains several standout individual scenes, but there's a hollowness at its core that would be a much bigger problem were it not obscured by the glare of Banderas's kilowattage.
I guess it's true what they say -- money changes everything.