In “Desperado,” Robert Rodriguez dedicates himself almost exclusively to dreaming up a hundred new ways to blow people away, to ultimately diminishing returns. The young Tex-Mex director’s much-anticipated follow-up to his wildly inventive no-budget 1993 debut “El Mariachi” could scarcely be more dazzling on a purely visual level, but it’s mortally anemic in the story, character and thematic departments.
Helmer’s stylistic gifts are amply confirmed by this action-filled bloodbath, and pic’s ultra-hip profile and hot cast foretell good domestic B.O. with young action auds and even better biz overseas.
Allegedly produced for $ 7,000 before Columbia picked it up and technically enhanced it, “El Mariachi” was one of the unique film successes of recent times. Although met by modest commercial success, the tale of an itinerant guitar player drawn into drug-world violence in a dusty Mexican town played like a valid update of Japanese samurai sagas and bounty-hunter Westerns informed by the heightened violence of Sam Peckinpah and the witty stylistic exaggeration of Sergio Leone.
In “Desperado,” the influences of John Woo, and especially Quentin Tarantino, also come into play, with latter on hand to personally approve Rodriguez’s application to the Club of Cool. Result is both a rehash and extension of “El Mariachi,” with a major upgrade in budget and technical know-how, but no forward movement in storytelling ability.
Opening stretch is near-brilliant in its audaciousness. A brash gringo (indie fave Steve Buscemi) struts into a Mexican dive, sits at the bar and relates to the assembled lowlifes what he just saw happen at another cantina, where a mysterious stranger wiped everyone out. The crowd gets even more interested when the yanqui mentions that the gun-toting vagabond is looking for a fellow named Bucho and may be headed this way.
The stranger of course, is El Mariachi, now played by the never-more-handsome Antonio Banderas, a guitar-strummer wandering the country with heavy artillery in his guitar case, seeking revenge for the murder of the woman he loved. The traumatic event from the first film is seen via an unusual restaged flashback with Banderas.
El Mariachi eventually walks into bartender Cheech Marin’s joint, which is a front for drug dealer Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida), triggering a scene of choreographed gunplay in which an untold number of scummy henchmen get splattered against the ceiling, walls and floor. Anyone with a taste for high-ballistic violence and the action-painting school of filmmaking will be drooling with delight well before the guns begin to cool.
But there’s at least an hour to go, and the entire plot consists of El Mariachi trying to nail the well-protected Bucho, while Bucho’s men try to ambush him. Along the way, El Mariachi forms an amorous alliance with local beauty Carolina (sexy Salma Hayek) that proves momentarily diverting. But the violent confrontations become numbing and ultimately dismaying when it becomes clear that the filmmaker mainly is interested in inventing clever new ways for a lone gunman to beat staggering odds.
Worse, El Mariachi gains no stature or depth as a character and, crucially for a nomadic loner, is given no moral code to govern his extreme, obsessive behavior. Parallel lack of any moral grounding or p.o.v. on the massive carnage also lays the film open to charges of sensationalizing violence for its own sake.
On a plot level, Rodriguez makes the crucial mistake of killing off virtually his entire cast of would-be important characters. On the basis of “Desperado,” what Rodriguez needs is a collaborator on story and script. Like Leone, the director is particularly adept at staging dramatic entrances, intimidating posturing and inventive violence, and there is no question of an imagination working overtime.
Banderas cuts a devastatingly attractive figure, which will help somewhat to draw women to the pic. Hayek makes for a perfect physical match, and de Almeida is suavely ruthless as the drug baron.
Tech contributions are splashy and superlative, dousing the weather-beaten little town in a fiesta of color and light. Soundtrack is peppy.