EL MARIACHI: The City I Thought Would Bring Me Luck Brought Only a Curse

El Mariachi (1992) – Directed by Robert Rodriguez – Starring, Carlos Gallardo, Consuelo Gómez, Peter Marquardt, and Reinol Martínez.

The film that launched Robert Rodriguez’s career still holds up as a tight, focused action movie about a mariachi mistaken for a killer who becomes a killer, first out of self-defense and then out of vengeance.

Carlos Gallardo’s performance as El Mariachi is completely engaging and inviting; he channels a warm honesty through his youthful appearance, able to smile in the brief moments of peace with Domino (Consuelo Gómez), even with all the craziness around him. It’s Mariachi’s openness and generally upbeat persona that carries us through the movie; he comes to town to find work playing his music and thinks this town will bring him luck, but a case of mistaken identity with the thug Azul (Reinol Martínez), who has come to town with a guitar case full of weapons to get his money from Moco (Peter Marquardt), has all of Moco’s killers trying to kill him instead.

I think what’s most impressive about the film is that Rodriguez keeps everything in line; much has been made about the fact that EL MARIACHI was made for only $7,000 which, I’m sure, contributes to this not being as long as Fellowship‘s Extended Cut, but even with all the excessive violence, there’s no wasted action in MARIACHI. One of the big difference between Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino is that despite all they have in common, Rodriguez is primarily about the coolness of the visual while Tarantino favors the spoken word.

Neither would work if they didn’t have good characters, of course, and Rodriguez puts four of them into play in EL MARIACHI. Mariachi’s goodness and earnestness is countered by his guitar-case wielding binary, Azul, a very bad dude who’s running a small operation out of a small jail and biding his time to go after Moco. Where Mariachi has an instrument of love in his case, Azul carries weapons of violence. Where Mariachi is a one-woman man despite his abilities to charm the crowd of ladies who come to watch him play, Azul has three women he lays with at the same time and is all business. Reinol Martínez is fantastic as Azul, playing the baddest guy in the film.

Domino is the woman Mariachi charms and falls for over the course of the film. He meets her when he comes into her saloon to look for a job, and his boyish charm works on her. She allows him to play and allows him to stay in her apartment upstairs. Domino also has a connection with Moco, who’s trying to woo her with gifts. Domino and Mariachi have good chemistry together; he keeps pushing his luck and she keeps pushing back, only to relent. He wants to play in her place, she says no, and then lets him to play despite not being able to play him. She lets him stay upstairs in his pace but when she goes up to check on him, she finds that he’s in her bath, so she pulls a “knife” on him (actually a letter opener) and forces him to play a song to prove he’s actually a mariachi.

Rodriguez does a good job bouncing these four around each other in this small town, blending a soft humor (mostly either from Mariachi or at his expense) with the copious amounts of violence. The story weaves around and around itself until the final confrontation at Moco’s compound. After Moco’s men grab Mariachi, only to have Moco cut him loose, Azul and Domino head to Moco’s place. When Moco finds out that Domino didn’t talk to him because she was with Mariachi, he flips his gourd and kills her, then his men cut down Azul, and then Mariachi arrives again – this time not knocked out in the back of a truck.

Moco shoots a hole through Mariachi’s hand, hindering his ability to ever play the guitar again, so after Mariachi takes out Moco and Moco’s men basically just shrug, Mariachi fills his guitar case with guns, puts Domino’s dog on his back, gets onto Domino’s motorcycle (bought for her by Moco), and drives off into the future. It’s a fitting end – the Mariachi who comes to town looking to ply his trade ends up falling in love with Domino, being mistaken for Azul, and killing Moco ends up leaving the town with a piece of each of them in tow, their identities now fused into his own identity, as if when they died physical deaths a piece of their soul was transferred into Mariachi.

If Nic Cage reads that last sentence, that’s totally his next movie.

EL MARIACHI still holds up as a tremendous modern western, and what Rodriguez proves here is that whether your budget is $7,000 or $270 million, it doesn’t cost an extra nickel to create solid characters or to know where to point your camera. The ending is both tragic and uplifting; the man of music has been transformed into a man of violence but is now filled with a greater sense of purpose, and a stronger desire to meet the world head on.