Dir. Robert Rodriguez
Written by: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Selma Hayek
Desperado was one of my favorite action movies when I was a teen, and it, along with other early Robert Rodriguez films, became highly influential on my early ambitions of becoming a filmmaker. I was a certified Tarantino freak in high school, and his filmography and circle of influence became a major jumping off point for me in discovering other favorite films. It was a short jump from Tarantino to his friend and frequent collaborator Robert Rodriguez, and Desperado was my entry into the latter’s low budget, sun baked brand of cinema. I immediately recognized the meta-cool of Tarantino’s postmodern style, but while Desperado indulged some of the same impulses of Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown, its influences were decidedly grittier. While Tarantino’s films sought to recontextualize and elevate their B-movie influences to the status of “high art,” Rodriguez’s reveled in the “low art” status of their cult and midnight movie predecessors. Rodriguez has proudly walked to the beat of his own drum throughout his career, learning the trade of filmmaking on the job, and constantly evolving as an artist. At this point, he has become a brand, the progenitor of a grindhouse resurgence that has only gained steam as new media has made it easier for aspiring filmmakers to create movies on a shoestring budget and get them released to wide audiences through alternative distribution channels like streaming or VOD, but Rodriguez’s early films represent a different type of guerilla filmmaking. In the 1990s, with films like Desperado, Rodriguez was one of a handful of filmmakers raising the flag for interesting, high production value, low budget, DIY filmmaking.
Desperado begins with a road weary, possibly deranged traveler (Steve Buscemi) stumbling into a bar in Mexico and relating the tale of a tall, shadowy figure that he saw murder a bar full of gangsters a few towns over. His story piques the interest of the bartender (Cheech Marin) and his associate (Carlos Gomez), as they obviously know the principals in the traveler’s story. It turns out that that shadowy figure is known as “El Mariachi” (Banderas), and he’s strapped with a guitar case full of guns, on a quest for vengeance against Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida), the drug lord who murdered his wife. Desperado is a straight forward revenge tale, with El Mariachi stalking Mexican towns, hunting down members of Bucho’s gang as he tries to get closer to the man himself. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with Carolina (Hayek), a book store owner who happens to be Bucho’s lover. When Bucho finds out about El Mariachi and Carolina’s affair, he sends his men to hunt down the pair, but they fight off their pursuers and eventually confront Bucho himself at his compound. After dispatching of Bucho, El Mariachi is free to ride off into the sunset with Carolina, although he hangs onto his guitar case full of guns, “just in case.”
What the film might lack in narrative complexity, it more than makes up for in fast-paced, explosive action. Rodriguez is obviously channeling the influence of the Hong Kong action films of John Woo in Desperado, but the film doesn’t feel derivative. Instead, it becomes a celebratory homage to those action landmarks, and a testament to Rodriguez’s ability to create polished, kinetic action sequences on a shoestring budget. His book, Rebel Without A Crew, details the process that Rodriguez went through to make his debut film, El Mariachi (which Desperado is a sequel to). It can serve as a primer for young filmmakers looking to chase their own movie dreams, and it was a huge influence on me in my late teens. Though the budget for Desperado was significantly larger, it was still scant by Hollywood standards, and Rodriguez still holds true to the rules of economic action filmmaking detailed in his book. His later films would see him working with bigger budgets, full FX teams, and cutting edge CGI technology, but the essence of Rodriguez’s style is perfectly on display here.
The stunt work in Desperado is impeccable, with Banderas doing all of his own stunts and performing some excellent fight choreography. He combines slapstick elements with traditional fight choreography and firearms work to create an ultraviolent, combustible ballet. Bullets rain down throughout the movie and countless scores of anonymous bad guys are dispatched of. This is action at its most impersonal and most impressive: mindless, excessive, and explosive. Rodriguez, a self-proclaimed guerrilla filmmaker, squeezes every bit of value out of his film’s $7 million budget. His mastery of practical effects and ingenuity as a filmmaker allow him to turn in a film that looks every bit as polished and has just as many high action set pieces as a big budget studio film. Although the industry and movie making technology have changed significantly in the 20+ years since Desperado was released, aspiring filmmakers who want a crash course in delivering high quality films on a budget should still look to Rodriguez’s early films and his book for tips. He’s by no means the only filmmaker capable of producing films of this quality on tight deadlines and budgets, but action films are so often the result of bloated FX budgets, lengthy shooting schedules, and complicated stunt work, and they still rarely leave the lasting impact that Desperado has, which is a testament to Rodriguez’s unique skillset.
As I mentioned, for all of its visual sheen, Desperado still finds Rodriguez struggling to flesh out his narratives. The script for Desperado is bare bones, interested only in the most direct motivations for its characters, and certainly not interested in significant psychological examination or character development. I don’t know that Rodriguez has ever really learned to write a “good” script, but I also don’t think that he often makes the type of films that are so significantly character driven that this is a bad thing. He plays to his strengths in Desperado and doesn’t let extraneous character background or plot devices get in the way of the fight scenes and explosions. There are attempts in the film to provide some depth for El Mariachi’s character, such as his relationship with a young boy who is growing up watching the cartel violence in his town, or his romantic relationship with Carolina, but these are largely underdeveloped. Narrative simplicity in a film like Desperado is fine. Character motivations in films like this one are concrete and don’t need a significant amount of discussion. However, one interesting thing about Rodriguez’s approach to storytelling in Desperado is his penchant for weaving the story together through narrated flashbacks. The film opens with one such instance of this technique, with the traveler telling the story of his encounter with El Mariachi interspersed with flashbacks of the mysterious gunman shooting up the bar. Though this isn’t a unique narrative device, Rodriguez employs it skillfully enough in Desperado that it helps to break up the linear progression of the film and makes for an interesting storytelling wrinkle.
Though the script might not be complex or narratively innovative, it does feature several great individual moments and opportunities for characters to deliver memorable monologues in one-off scenes, particularly earlier in the film before the action really ramps up. Banderas is great as El Mariachi, which, for me, is his signature role. He plays the character with a combination of winking cool and ruthless, violent determination. There’s an elegance to the choreography that Rodriguez has designed, with Banderas performing his stunts like a dancer, performing a duet with the camera to graceful, devastating effect. Hayek has little dialogue in the film, but she proves equally capable of performing action stunts, and Rodriguez gives her enough agency in the film that she doesn’t sink to the role of eye candy, which would have been a typical choice in a Hollywood action film. Almeida is a hate-worthy villain as Bucho. His performance isn’t over the top, as he chooses to play Bucho as largely disinterested in anything going on around him. His defining characteristics are cruelty, greed, and apathy, and they’re manifested in Almeida’s nose-in-air performance and his utter disdain for the rest of his costars. In many ways, though, the film’s supporting cast are given the best moments in the film and provide the most memorable performances, aside from Banderas’s. Desperado features cameos from familiar faces such as Steve Buscemi, Cheech Marin, Quentin Tarantino, and Danny Trejo, and though most of these actors are only given a scene or two, they bring their established (or burgeoning) personae to their scenes, and individually nail them. I’ve already mentioned Buscemi’s opening scene, which sets the stage for the destruction to come, but Marin’s cynical, corrupt bartender is classic Cheech, particularly in his brief interaction with an entitled tourist. Tarantino gets a brief moment to ham it up with a memorable telling of a genuinely funny joke, while Trejo, in one of his first mainstream film appearances, makes the most of his silent performance by utilizing his imposing physicality in a role as a bounty hunter tracking El Mariachi. Top to bottom, the cast shines in a genre that often doesn’t ask much of its actors.
It’s probably pretty obvious that my zeal for Desperado has not lessened any with age. It isn’t a film that I watch with any regularity anymore, but it’s one that I can get caught up in just as easily today as I did when I first saw it. Most modern action movies have become so formulaic and so obviously FX driven that I rarely seek them out. Desperado still feels like a breath of fresh air. It has its obvious influences, and it is clearly existing within a fairly rigid genre template, but Rodriguez’s sensibilities and his unique storytelling voice keep the film from ever feeling derivative. The film’s set pieces still hold up even with 20 years of technological innovation, and its central performance from Banderas as El Mariachi is an action archetype. I feel like Desperado doesn’t get as much consideration now, because Rodriguez’s career has moved away from making straight action movies and more into a direction of making B-movies and children’s sci-fi, but it’s a genre classic. In the 1990s, Desperado was a weekend cable TV staple, and it is still as fun of an experience to sit down and mindlessly consume as it was then.