A series of unfortunate events is sometimes all that it takes to completely hork up one's life. From time to time, with the best of intentions we all end up getting thrown into situations we can't control and they throw mon-chi-chi wrenches into our well placed machinery! Likewise a series of fortunate events can take you from San Antonio, Texas to creating the gosh darned Spy Kids Franchise. In the case of Film maker Robert Rodriguez fortunate events managed to make him a successful Hollywood draw based on a movie that cost only $7,000 to make (not counting post production).
In the case of the character he has created, a traveling guitarist who wants only to be a Mariachi like his father, and his father before him, it is a series of unfortunate events that takes away his dreams like a bottle of Hypnocil (little Nightmare on Elm Street reference for you buffs)! In El Mariachi a character identified only as "El Mariachi" (Carlos Gallardo) drifts into town dressed in black with his guitar case looking for work. Meanwhile a prison escapee named Azul (Reinol Martinez) drifts into town dressed in black with his guitar case looking for Revenge. While El Mariachi's case indeed contains a guitar, Azul's contains a cache of weapons. Now just imagine the poor musician coming into town and being mistaken for this legendary killer. Predictably mistaken identity and violence ensues, ultimately changing El Mariachi's life forever.
It's hard not to root for El Mariachi, as he's a very innocent kid who wants little more than to find a job playing music. He doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, preserves his voice, and is neither a letch nor a killer. The series of unfortunate events surrounding Azul thrusts our musician friend into a world of intrigue, violence, love and loss, and that's all within a few days. We see how El Mariachi became the man he proves to be in the sequel, Desperado!
Although an American by Birth, Rodriguez filmed El Mariachi entirely in Mexico and in Spanish. According to film making lore, Peter Marquardt who performed the role of uber-bad-guy Moco spoke no Spanish at all and actually had to deliver his lines phonetically from cue cards offscreen. Still he performed very well and it didn't show. There are many good voiceovers and quite a lot of interesting dialogue. Gallardo specifically adds an air of fascination to his character with his sorrowful narrations. The performances are all pretty good, which is interesting in that few of the parts are performed by actual "actors!" Consuelo Gómez shines as the lovely Domino and effectively captures the sympathy of the viewer. Meanwhile Martinez' Azul conveys both humor and menace very well.
There is some excellent humor in this film, some deadpan, some completely in your face. Occasionally this film succeeds even in super-silliness like sped up camera work for the sake of comedy. Ordinarily the dry and the deadpan don't mix well with the silliness, but Rodriguez does a good job of separating such things so that they fit in the overall mesh of the film.
This is also a very violent film. There is a lot of gunfire and some blood (though not as much as in Desperado). The difference here is that there isn't any gratuitous violence. Rather, we see this violence as a necessary part of the script (and more so when the aftermath is seen in the sequel). Either due to budget constraints or due to a stylistic choice, some of the violence transpires off screen in the vein of For a Few Dollars More. In some ways this is even more ominous.
A few drawbacks exist. Non-Spanish speaking viewers might be unnerved by the fact that the subtitles are in borderless white. When so much of this is filmed against sand or characters wearing white, it does get hard to read. The production values were also somewhat slim, but the cinematography and the angles and inventive cutting make this hardly noticeable. A bit of the film itself stretches into implausibility, which is sad because the beginning the title character seems very realistic. For example, El Mariachi is clearly a great athlete and the first two men he "kills" he actually outruns and causes them to die in each other's crossfire. On the other hand, later in the film, although an innocent guitarist up until this point, he manages to become a world class marksman, and outguns experienced mobsters. He fights pretty well for a musician, I'd say. Further, one would think that a guitar case holding an acoustic guitar would be considerably lighter in weight than the same case filled with all sorts of guns. However, when the two cases get mixed up, neither owner notices the difference at all. An incongruous scene featuring an inmate begging to be sprung from jail five minutes before revealing that he and his cellmates have concealed machine guns and could have left at any point (which they do) makes one wonder why such a great movie must hinge on a timely prison escape. Most strangely, when our pacifist Mariachi has to hide from the mobsters who are looking for him everywhere, what does El Mariachi do? Well, he performs a live concert in a bar that the bad guys have been looking for him in to a live audience. Hmmm... now that doesn't strike me as a model of Stealth! Let's just hope that the baddies aren't watching Austin City Limits!
It's easy to say that all this is forgiven, as this really was a completely independent film shot on a shoestring budget (earned by the director's moonlighting as a test subject for a drug company), but in fact, these things are no more implausible than any given Michael Bay film out there. It's amazing that one has to travel south of the Border to find an all but perfect action film when so much of Hollywood sucked toes during the early to mid-nineties (and beyond). Rest assured, this is a great movie and stacks up very well to other legacy-inspiring Indies like The Evil Dead, and vastly exceeds many Indies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project, and even My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Sure there are better films out there, but I can list hundreds of Hollywood Action Films that this movie exceeds in so many ways. In other words... the drawbacks here still prove out that this is a better movie than, say Armageddon!
The ending is fantastic and engrossing! While one hour and fourteen minutes into the film there is an incredible downer, said downer is needed to validate the ending as well as the sequel. There is an over the top monologue at the end, a la Linda Hamilton's ending voice over in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but somehow, like the rest of this largely over the top experience, it manages to work well. The Mariachi is changed forever, but still is a sympathetic character whom you want to see again.
Three and One Half Stars for El Mariachi! If there wasn't already a sequel (and another on the way 9/12/03) I'd be demanding one. Well, I'd love to come up with a witty ending to this review, but I have to go home and see what kind of illegals I can store in one of my Bass Guitar cases. I'm certainly no Mariachi, so I can live without the instrument inside. Hey, if Robert Rodriguez can do this much, I know that with my old 8 MM I can make low budget MAGIC! I wonder if Banderas can play me in the sequel? More on this later!