(Spanish language; English subtitles)
TELLURIDE–Almost certainly, at $ 7,000, the cheapest film ever released by a major Hollywood studio, Columbia’s pickup “El Mariachi” is a fresh, resourceful first feature by 24-year-old Austin filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. Spanish lingo crime meller has a verve and cheekiness that will put it over with fest and sophisticated audiences that like to latch onto hot new talent, while distrib could also do well in the domestic Hispanic market. But mainstream acceptance will have to wait at least until the $ 6 million remake Rodriguez will reportedly do as part of his two-year deal at Col.
At the very least, “El Mariachi,” which was lensed in two weeks in the Mexican border town of Acuna, can serve as an object lesson and inspiration to aspiring filmmakers who complain about lack of coin. Even though he shot with a hand-held 16mm camera and non-synch sound, Rodriguez has put a perfectly serviceable picture up on the screen (Col paid for the 35mm blowup andDolby sound add-on).
But Rodriguez has pulled off a good deal more than that, since he has created a solid genre piece with a sense of style that is partly original, partly dictated by economic necessity and partly a smart wedding of such influences as Sergio Leone, George Miller and south-of-the-border noir.
Simple tale is that of a lone stranger in town who stirs up trouble, although in this case the newcomer is a young, hapless mariachi singer looking for a gig. Unfortunately for him, also in town is a revenge-crazed drug dealer named Azul at war with his former partner, Moco. Like El Mariachi, Azul wears black and carries a guitar case, although one loaded with heavy weaponry rather than a stringed instrument.
Cat-and-mouse plotting sees the earnest El Mariachi chased around town by Moco’s henchmen, who themselves are being systematically mowed down by Azul. All El Mariachi wants is a job, which leads him to the cantina of the foxy Domino, a beauty who takes a shine to the kid but also happens to be a favorite of murderous Moco.
Fortunately, Rodriguez doesn’t take the well-worn plot elements too seriously , and instead has a high old time with his moments of mistaken identity, violent confrontations and numerous stylistic jokes, including speeded-up action and send-ups of genre conventions. Given pic’s relative levity, amount of carnage at the climax comes as something of a surprise, and fade-out feels uncomfortably close to a set-up for a sequel.
For all the goodwill and likability Rodriguez generates by accomplishing so much on so little, there remains something a tad calculated about the film. Pic feels like a technical exercise well-executed, but one with little emotional conviction or P.O.V. behind it. Coupled with the thin plotting, this results in a work of marginal resonance.
Carlos Gallardo, who also co-wrote and co-produced, makes for an affable Mariachi, if one a little green around the gills. Consuelo Martinez is suitably foxy as the barkeep caught in the middle, and Peter Marquardt is effective enough as a standard-issue drug baron, icy and gringo-ish. Tops in the cast is Reinol Martinez, whose football-player build, undeterrable relentlessness and amusing impassivity make Azul a memorable heavy.
Except for the repetitious chase scenes, Rodriguez has planned out his film exceedingly well visually, keeping the camera excitingly mobile and cutting expertly on action and within the frame. Even before the film’s premiere here, Rodriguez was clearly a young director to watch on the basis of his unique career move. What’s onscreen certainly displays enough talent to justify the interest.