El Mariachi / Desperado Review

To mark the UK release of Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Gary Couzens has updated his review of Columbia TriStar’s Region 2 release of the first two films in Robert Rodriguez’s trilogy. Two films on a double-sided disc, plus extras, was very good value when it was originally released. It’s even more so now, when you can buy this at discount price.

Our unnamed hero (Carlos Gallardo) is a “mariachi”, a wandering guitar player. In a small Mexican town, he’s mistaken for a violent man who has just busted out of prison, and he fears for his life.

With a budget of $7000, El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez’ debut feature film, is in the record books as the lowest-budget film ever distributed by a major studio. That widely-quoted figure is misleading, as it produced 25000 feet of 16mm footage and an edited videotape. El Mariachi was originally intended for the Spanish-language video market, but Columbia Pictures saw a copy as it did the rounds in Los Angeles and signed up Rodriguez to a two-year development deal. Columbia spent rather more than $7000 in blowing the film up to 35mm and giving it a Dolby soundtrack. Festival screenings and a small American cinema release followed.

Whatever the final cost, El Mariachi is a remarkable achievement. Although the rough, grainy visuals betray the tiny budget, there’s a lot of pace and energy to the film, and little fat. As well as writing the script, co-producing and directing, Rodriguez photographed the film and edited it. His style relies a lot on cutting together strikingly-angled shots, with much use made of a zoom lens. The budget didn’t stretch to a camera dolly, so Rodriguez sat in a wheelchair instead! The many shoot-outs are well staged. The sound has a raw quality (it was recorded live, in a separate take to the visuals) but it is clear: notice how different in ambience the alternative German-dubbed track is. For a while this was (along with Das Boot) the only foreign-language film released on a UK DVD, but the presence of subtitles shouldn’t put anyone off: this is hardly a dialogue-driven film.

Desperado was made with a $7 million budget, still very small by Hollywood standards. It’s nominally a sequel (there’s a brief flashback to the ending of the first film) but can be watched independently. It’s shot in 35mm, Guillermo Navarro’s lush lighting making the film look much more expensive that it actually was. Desperado is considerably more polished than its predecessor. It also runs twenty minutes longer, which is not necessarily better: there’s an indulgent cameo from the director’s friend and occasional collaborator Quentin Tarantino. However, and with all due respect to Carlos Gallardo and Consuelo Gómez (who both make brief appearances), where this film is clearly superior is in its casting. Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek bring a lot of presence, not to mention sexiness, to their roles. Watch Banderas in one of the many shootouts: he moves almost like a dancer. The word is charisma.

Desperado is far more violent than El Mariachi. Too much so for the MPAA, who ordered cuts to be made to avoid a NC-17 rating. This R-rated version was submitted to the BBFC and passed without any further cuts.

El Mariachi on its own, being a tiny-budget Spanish-language film, would not have been very commercial on its own, so releasing it on the same disc as Desperado, is a great piece of marketing. Two films on one disk has to be excellent value for money – and that’s before you even consider the extras. (Marks for film, picture and sound are an average of those for each film.) This disc is a DVD-10, that is two-sided with a single layer on each side, and is encoded for both Regions 2 and 4.

Both films have anamorphic transfers, El Mariachi at 1.66:1 (not 1.77:1 as it says on the packaging) and Desperado at 1.85:1. Some of the shots in the former seem cropped, though that may be due to Rodriguez’ penchant for close-ups. A couple of shots look awkwardly framed in Desperado, even though that ratio is certainly correct. I’m less convinced by the framing of El Mariachi; although it’s acceptable perhaps a full-frame transfer might have been better. The trailer is full-frame and certain shots do look better that way. Having said that, this isn’t a film that relies on precise composition, and you have to allow some rough-and-readiness due to its budget and 16mm origins. Similarly, you have to allow for a considerable amount of grain and some poor shadow detail. No such qualms about the Desperado picture quality: rich and colourful with strong blacks. The occasional awkward composition is down to the director here.

El Mariachi is in Dolby Surround, though that’s basically mono apart from the music score and the occasional sound effect such as left-channel gunfire in Chapter 5. Like the picture it’s little more than functional, and that’s all you can really expect in the circumstances. Desperado has an elaborate Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which makes considerable use of the surrounds for directional effects. (After the musical number that plays under the opening credits, listen as the sound of one person clapping travels round the room from right surround via left surround to left and then centre.) The subwoofer adds impact to the many gunshots and explosions.

If you’re interested in how to make films on low budgets, then both of Rodriguez’ commentaries will be essential listening. He’s an engaging talker, who apologises early on that his words may be too much to take in in one go, but he certainly does provide a lot of information. The El Mariachi trailer carefully avoids using any dialogue, not wishing to put viewers off with subtitles. The Desperado trailer doesn’t, but then the film is in English and easier to sell: put in enough shots of Banderas and enough gunplay and you cover all your bases. Also included are Rodriguez’ charming nine-minute short Bedhead shot in black and white full-frame 16mm, basic (and in the cases of Banderas and Steve Buscemi, certainly incomplete) filmographies. There are two music videos from Desperado: “Morena de mi corazón” by Los Lobos and Banderas, and “Back to the House that Love Built” by Tito and Tarantula.

“Ten Minute Film School” (which, to be pedantic, actually runs fourteen minutes), is a digest version of Rodriguez’ El Mariachi commentary, illustrated with clips from the film and behind-the-scenes video footage. “Ten More Minutes: Anatomy of a Shootout” does much the same for Desperado. Again these are intended to give tips to would-be filmmakers. I’ve no doubt it’s very useful, but a lot of the information can also be found in the commentaries. All the extras are full-frame. There are a very generous twenty-eight chapter stops for each film.

The films this DVD contains are certainly entertaining but stop well short of greatness. Rodriguez certainly has a lot of talent and energy, but as yet his films come out of other movies, not yet from life experience. That’s a matter of maturity, and to be fair these are very much a young man’s films. But in terms of value for money, and as a primer for filmmakers starting out, this DVD is difficult to beat.

[Since this review was written, Columbia TriStar have released two editions of Desperado on its own: a Superbit edition and a Special Edition (released on 15 September 2003) which contains most of the Desperado extras listed above except for the music videos and includes a sneak peek at the 2003’s conclusion to the trilogy, Once Upon a Time in Mexico.]


Updated: Sep 29, 2003

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