Desperado (1995) – Directed by Robert Rodriguez – Starring Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Joaquim de Almeida, Steve Buscemi, Cheech Marin, Carlos Gallardo, and Quentin Tarantino.
DESPERADO is one of the coolest movies of the 1990s. I just reviewed Walter Hill’s Wild Bill, which spends a lot of time trying to be cool through style and editing, but DESPERADO simply is cool through the power of Banderas’ performance, Rodriguez’s energetic (but not headache-inducing) camera work, a fantastic score and soundtrack (thanks, Los Lobos!), and great performances that all blend together to create a very believable, hyper world of drugs, sex, and violence.
It’s telling that both films are released in 1995, where the old hand is trying new tricks and the new hand is reaffirming the old ones. I applaud Hill for trying something different with Wild Bill, but I’d be lying if I said it worked. DESPERADO, on the other hand, proves that Rodriguez can do with $7 million what he did with $7,000 in El Mariachi without getting lost amidst all his new toys and possibilities.
DESPERADO is a sequel to El Mariachi, with Antonio Banderas stepping into the role Carlos Gallardo originated. (Gallardo has a smaller role as Campa, one of Mariachi’s allies.) Banderas and Gallardo bring different qualities to the role of Mariachi. Where Gallardo infused the character with a boyish charm, Banderas gives him a much more traditionally cool, masculine edge. At the start of the film, Mariachi’s unnamed, storytelling ally (Steve Buscemi), enters Cheech Marin’s bar to spread the word that Mariachi is in town and to look for the local reaction when he mentions Bucho, the target of Mariachi’s quest this time around. Buscemi (I’m not going to keep calling him “unnamed storytelling ally”) gets the crowd’s attention by saying he just came from a bar where he saw “the biggest Mexican I’ve ever seen in my life,” signalling to us that Mariachi has grown quite a bit since he picked up Domino’s dog, hopped on her bike, and almost ran over a turtle.
Mariachi is now killer first, music being relegated into the stuff of dreams. He tries to play a couple times, but his damaged left hand (shot through by Moco at the end of El Mariachi) keeps him from being able to hold the neck, so first a little kid and then later Carolina (Salma Hayek) try their hand at accompanying him.
As with El Mariachi, it’s the non-action scenes that make DESPERADO something better than a solid action flick. Mariachi’s relationship with the young boy who walks around town with a guitar both humanizes him (when he’s teaching the boy) and then propels him towards greater anger (when he discovers the boy carries drugs in his guitar for Bucho), and finally shows us compassion (when the boy is accidentally shot during a showdown with Bucho’s men).
Where DESPERADO exceeds its preceding part is in not only Rodriguez’s growing abilities as a filmmaker, but in the extended cast of high-quality actors who are put to excellent use. There’s great chemistry between Cheech Marin as the bartender and Buscemi: “Hey, the bartender always survives!” “No, man, the bartender got it worst of all.” Danny Trejo shows up as a killer sent by the Columbians to watch over Bucho’s operation and take care of Mariachi. Forget Machete, this is Trejo at his bad-ass best as a silent, stalking, dangerous killer who uses throwing knives instead of guns. And Joaquim de Almeida steps into the role intended for Raul Julia and delivers a rather complex villain role. Alternatively, he’s mean, charming, scared, violent, conniving, generous … but his best moment comes when he’s trying to call the phone in his brand new car from his compound but he can’t because no one knows the car’s phone number. “Does anyone f*cking know the phone number to my car?!?” he yells to a compound full of henchmen that clearly don’t.
Rodriguez also shows he knows how to put together a great sex scene; instead of simply feeling perfunctory, Rodriguez puts as much attention to this scene as any of his shoot-’em-up sequences. Banderas is one half of the coupling and Salma Hayek is the other. DESPERADO is the film that launched Hayek into the Hollywood consciousness, and she’s rather good at being the gorgeous, semi-naive coffee shop/bookstore owner who ends up as Mariachi’s ally, nurse, and then lover. When Mariachi finds out she’s been allowing Bucho to use her store as a drop for drugs, Mariachi is furious with her, and it’s in these moments of desperate rage that Banderas really wins me over.
If there’s a weakness with DESPERADO it’s the ending twist of having Mariachi and Bucho be brothers. It’s not really needed but I suppose Rodriguez didn’t want to go down the same road as El Mariachi, with a bad guy who’s courting the woman who falls for the hero. That’s here, too, of course, but the thrust of these final scenes is between Bucho and his little brother.
DESPERADO is fantastic from start to finish, a slick, totally cool action flick that’s as good a contemporary western as anyone could want, and a fitting end to Western Month.