El Mariachi review by Matt Fuerst


As I begin writing my review of Robert Rodriguez' first full length effort, I realize that it is likely to come off sounding a lot more negative than I intended before I watched the film. You see, I have a lot of respect for Mr. Rodriguez, I feel like he came through the ranks the "right way", and since becoming a Hollywood director has made honest efforts to help other struggling filmmakers. Commendable. In addition, he hasn't "lost his roots" (what, is it cliche day?) churning out movies quickly, cheaply and of high quality. Bravo. El Mariachi, his first effort that was intended for a straight-to-video release in Mexico, brought his international fame when he won the audience choice at Sundance and Columbia Pictures picked up the film for a theatrical release in the United States. Eventually Rodriguez was all famous and whatnot, sort of remade the film as Desperado which you may have caught at your local multiplex with now Rodriguez favorite Antonio Banderas.

The plot for El Mariachi is relatively simple (with the script weighing in at 40 pages according to Rodriguez in his commentary). Azul (Reinol Martinez) is a bad guy in jail. The head bad guy, Moco (Peter Marquardt) owes Azul money, but instead of paying him off, figures it's cheaper and easier to just kill him in jail and pocket the money. Moco sends the henchmen in, but Azul is one tricky brother, and rubs out Moco's hitmen. Breaking out of jail (actually walking out and throwing a stack of pesos at the guard), Azul calls Moco and tells him he is coming for him, his guitar case full of guns at his side. Quick cut to El Mariachi (The Guitarplayer in Spanish, Carlos Gallardo), roaming from town to town to try to find work. Mariachi arrives at yet another nameless, faceless town, but this time, things are different. A group of Moco's henchmen see Mariachi, guitar case at his side, and begin to chase him down. Chasing, gunplay, and back stabbing ensue.

El Mariachi eventually meets up with the local friendly, compassionate bartender Domino lets him hole up at her place. Love interest ensues. More gun play, mixing of guitar cases, and chase scenes. Revelations occur, and Moco, who owns the whole town, also owns Domino, and calls her out to his lush pad on the edge of town. El Mariachi has to follow her, save her from the evil Moco. Azul also happens to arrive at the same time, to finish the job with Moco and his henchmen. The three members of the plot are together, the standoff is going to end one way or the other.

As I alluded to initally, Rodriguez filmed El Mariachi on a shoestring budget (about $7,000 US, of which only about $600 was spent for actual items used in the movie, the rest going to film stock and processing type costs) intending to release it directly to video in the Mexican market (I have been to Mexico, and the action shelves are just lined with videos produced in Mexico, for Mexicans). His goal was to sell Mariachi for enough money to finance production of Mariachi 2 and 3 to continue learning how to be a filmmaker without paying anything out of his pocket. However, the outcome was much higher than his anticipations, as he won the Audience Award at Sundance and was picked up for theatrical distribution by Columbia Pictures. Columbia paid for a whole host of goodies, a blowup to 35mm, proper editing of the film, cleanup of the print, dubbing of the film into several languages, subtitling, the works. Rodriguez was on the top of the world and things were just going to get better. A "Two Thumbs Up" review from Siskel and Ebert, critical praise from aroud the world, and Columbia treating Rodriguez as royalty.

However, looking back, today in 2003 at 1993, I must say I am surprised at all the hoopla that El Mariachi caused. Rodriguez is talented, and I am very glad that he is making movies today, having enjoyed all of his Hollywood releases that I have seen (I'm working my way through the Spy Kids trilogy right now), so don't get me wrong when I say this, but: I've seen far more talented independent, low-budget films. The cinematography in general, is quite poor. Maybe it's the matting of the DVD (the original edit of the film was definetly 1.33:1, whereas the DVD is 1.66:1) but there are tons of heads cut off or chins cut off in frames. Characters aren't properly balanced on screen, and the composition of the picture is just plain odd at times. These aren't things that you can blame on the low budget, since if you're taking a shot, taking the time to set it up doesn't cost any money, just a moment of time. Rodriguez shot with a camera without sound, and despises not having lips sync with words, so he filmed a great quantity of reaction shots and peripheral shots, which are edited in constantly. While not a dialogue heavy film, whenever there is dialogue you will find yourself feeling a tension headache coming on from the lightning fast, annoyingly placed cuts.

The plot is more than witty enough for an action flick, but the script content itself isn't anything special. El Mariachi isn't given anything deeper than a superficial characterization ("I want to be a Mariachi like my father and my grandfather.") and everyone else simply delivers their lines without any backstory. For having a group of non-actors, everything on the screen works well enough, as long as your expectation aren't too high. Again, you're more likely to be wondering what's happening with the guy talking as you cut away from him looking at the reaction shot due to Rodriguez tastes.

I watched El Mariachi on the Columbia double film disc El Mariachi and Desperado 1999 release. The film quality of Mariachi was better than I would expect for a $7,000 film, but apparently there is always an excuse to rerelease a DVD as I see Columbia has prepared a new release of the films for a late August, 2003 release (this time on two discs, instead of one movie on each side of one disc, and claiming a cleaner print of Mariachi). The Mariachi side of the disc features an entertaining and thurough commentary track from Rodriguez. He takes every opportunity to do a nuts and bolts look at the production of the film, so it's not very heavy in the philosphical direction, but a great introduction to guerilla filmmaking. Additionally Rodriguez produced a short documentary called "10 Minute Film School" showing raw footage, his decision making process, and how he edits scenes together. The featurette also shows clips from the original video print that Rodriguez made to send to prospective distributors on VHS. Also on the Mariachi DVD is a 1990 Rodriguez short entitled Bedhead that is a light look at sibling relationships. Rodriguez' tenants are pretty visible in his 1990 work (Bedhead), 1993 work (El Mariachi) and even present today (Spy Kids 3). Rodriguez shoots quick, uses whatever he has on hand (in the case of Bedhead casting his family, shooting in his house; for Spy Kids 3 using digital cameras and doing tons of work in post-production) which has led to his success. In spite of being a "name" director I don't think he's helmed a film that cost over $30M to make, yet has achieved box office success with each release.

Well, I honestly can't recommend El Mariachi, even if you are a Rodriguez fan. There just isn't enough worthwhile content here to make it worth the investment. If you want to enjoy a low budget film, there are far better ones out there, and if you want to enjoy a high quality shooter flick then there are far better ones as well (including the remake/sequel Desperado). It was an interesting look at early Rodriguez, but I wish I had spent my time going through Spy Kids 2. Looking back now, I wonder how much of the 1993 blitz surrounding the film was Columbia's marketing, and how much of it was genuine praise for the film itself. As I imagine you can tell from the content of my review, I would propose it to be the former. In the trailer for the film, Columbia states something to the effect of "In 1991, Columbia brought you John Singleton. In 1993, we bring you hot new director Richard Rodriguez." My spin on things is that Columbia saw an opportunity where they could market a movie and create a hot commodity, and they did so. I'm glad they did, Rodriguez is good stuff, but Mariachi, I could leave behind.

3 out of 10 Jackasses
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