As he cruised into the fall of 1995, Robert Rodriguez had a plan for avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump. His debut feature, “El Mariachi,” was an indie sensation two years earlier – originally intended as a self-financed calling card of a movie, solely for the Mexican home video market, it had found unexpected success on the film festival circuit and was picked up for full-on theatrical and video distribution by Columbia Pictures. The company sold both the film and its backstory, making promotional hay of the comically low production budget ($7,000) and financing (Rodriguez raised much of that budget via a month-long stay in an experimental clinical drug testing facility).
“El Mariachi’s” no-budget ingenuity and DIY aesthetic were part of its appeal, but only the first time out. What would Rodriguez do for a follow-up? “Usually you are so scrutinized on your second film that you freak out and fumble,” he wrote in his 1995 book “Rebel Without a Crew.” “I knew people would be watching for that sophomore slump, so I figured that instead of making one film and putting all the eggs in one basket, I would simply confuse the marketplace by putting out four films quickly. No one would be able to figure out which was the second, third, fourth, or fifth.”
And so, in a jaw-dropping burst of cinematic activity, he directed a feature-length installment of Showtime’s“Rebel Highway” anthology series, titled “Roadracers”; a segment of the omnibus film “Four Rooms”; a previously unproduced Quentin Tarantino screenplay titled “From Dusk Till Dawn”; and “Desperado,” a continuation of “El Mariachi” (albeit with bigger stars and a much bigger budget), which hit theaters 25 years ago. A quarter of a century later, it remains not only the best of the pictures in that “basket,” but arguably the best film Rodriguez ever made. It pulses with youthful enthusiasm, sandbox energy – it’s the work of a hungry filmmaker who can finally play with all the toys, and who uses the opportunity to pour out every cool idea that’s knocking around in his head.
First and foremost is the notion of mythmaking. Rodriguez opens “Desperado” with Steve Buscemi – at that point, the ubiquitous character actor king of indie cinema – strolling into a Mexican town saloon, as goofy and white as possible; to borrow the parlance of a Buscemi’s best-known meme, he might as well ask, “How do you do, fellow Mexicans?” Sidling up to the bar, with as little prompting as possible, he spins a wild yarn (“Ok, so I blew it a little out of proportion,” he confesses later, “but they bought it”) of how “the biggest Mexican” he’d ever seen marched into a similar bar in a nearby town and mercilessly blew everyone in the joint away – and Rodriguez illustrates the tall tale, with all the flair he can muster.
That all comes in the pre-title sequence – an efficient method of both welcoming back the first film’s fans and introducing this character to newcomers. Much like Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name (a crystal-clear influence), he’s never referred to by a proper name; he’s only known as “the mariachi.” Antonio Banderas takes over the role for Rodriguez’s childhood friend Carlos Gallardo, who played him in the first film, and the filmmaker seems to have fashioned “Desperado” in the spirit of “Evil Dead 2”: a “remake-quel,” if you will, continuing the first film’s story but also reprising it for a mass audience, amping up the original’s juicy fusion of Spaghetti Western, American action, and John Woo-style “gun-fu.”
“Desperado” also came at an opportune moment for Banderas, who was slowly transitioning from international (primarily via his collaborations with Pedro Almodóvar) to American stardom; after carefully chosen supporting roles in the likes of “Philadelphia” and “Interview with the Vampire,” this was his first top-billed leading role in a domestic release. And Rodriguez was the guy to make the case for him: he shoots Banderas like a goddamn matinee idol, lingering on his long mane of untamed hair and two days of stubble. The actor purrs his lines with casual musicality and moves through his shootouts with balletic grace. You can’t take your eyes off him.
That makes him a good match for co-star Salma Hayek, whose entrance literally stops traffic. This was a breakthrough role for Hayek as well, who had made her name as a star on Mexican television but needed the right role to introduce herself to American audiences. She found it here, coming on like a hurricane as the kind-hearted bookstore owner who becomes the mariachi’s confidante, protector, makeshift surgeon, and finally lover, generating sizzling chemistry with Banderas in the process. On one hand, their obligatory sex scene is gratuitous (and corny, in a very specific, mid-‘90s, “Red Shoe Diaries” kind of way). On the other hand, it’s sort of inevitable; why would the two most beautiful people on the planet not do this?
In fact, Hayek appeared in all four of Rodriguez’s sophomore projects, while Banderas would return in “Four Rooms,” and co-stars Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo (young, thin, and scary, his scowl and eyes burn with equal, terrifying intensity) returning for “From Dusk Till Dawn.” Rodriguez was building an early stock company here, reusing these actors frequently in the years to come; he would also continue to collaborate with Tarantino, whose brief appearance (flush with the painful self-consciousness of so much of his acting work) serves as a kind of blessing, a stamp of approval to the “Pulp Fiction” audience of the previous fall.
But Rodriguez, for better or worse, had a very different skill set. “Desperado” is, first and foremost, an action movie, and this man could shoot the hell out of said action: after years of watching mind-numbing “Bay-hem” and its imitations, this viewer was again struck by the energy of Rodriguez’s edits, the inventiveness of his compositions, the zippiness of his camerawork, the dreamlike quality of his in-scene cross-fades. There are set pieces here that are absolute all-timers, including the crackling bar shootout, the toy-obsessed climax (in which guitar cases serve as both machine guns and rocket launchers), and Banderas and Hayek’s kiss-and-jump escape sequence, which culminates in one of the (few) great walking-away-from-the-giant-explosion moments.
But he also kids the violence, and zeroes in on its inherent silliness. The stunts are gleefully overdone, with bullet hits propelling henchmen clear across barrooms and out of front doors (more guys fly through the air in this movie than in some superhero flicks). He tags that big bar shoot-out with comic innovations: a funny little tag with a series of empty guns, a later scene that lingers on the messiness of the cleanup. And he doesn’t take his villain too seriously either, milking a great running gag out of the criminal empire’s organizational dysfunction; Joaquim de Almedia is plenty chilling in the role, but he also lands the laughs when he waves his pistol at his henchmen, shouting, “What’s the number to the phone in my car?!?”
Much to Columbia’s disappointment, “Desperado” was not a “Pulp Fiction”-sized smash – but since the resourceful filmmaker had kept the budget at a (comparatively) low $7 million, it turned a profit with little trouble. And that was noteworthy: low budget or no, this was a studio summer action movie, in the very homogenous mid-1990s, populated almost entirely by non-white actors. Rodriguez would return to the Mariachi character eight years later with “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” but that was his last flirtation with the subgenre of Tex-Mex Western he’d perfected here, and that’s a shame.
This flurry of output in ’94 and ’95 gave us four possible versions of the kind of filmmaker Robert Rodriguez could turn out to be: the passive filmmaker-for-hire of “Roadracers” (“Alita”), the genre specialist of “Dusk Till Dawn” (“The Faculty,” “Sin City”), the slapstick/family filmmaker of “Four Rooms” (“Spy Kids”), and the inventive gunslinger of “Desperado.” Sadly, the most promising filmmaker of that bunch is the one we saw least in the passing decades.