"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, February 18, 2022

Desperado

In 1992, independent filmmaker Robert Rodriguez made his feature film debut with El Mariachi, a $7,000 action movie that showed a stylistic flare beyond its meager budget. It made the rounds at several film festivals with a lot of media attention on the self-assured young man and the incredible story of how he made a movie for so little money. Naturally, Hollywood came calling and initially Rodriguez resisted, making Roadracers (1994) for the Showtime cable television channel after his deal with Sony Columbia Pictures was put on the back burner due to scandal. He eventually made Desperado (1995), a sequel to Mariachi that not only saw him working with a significantly larger budget of $7 million, but with movie star Antonio Banderas.


The film begins almost as if we are in a Quentin Tarantino film with a grungy gringo (Steve Buscemi) walking into a Mexican bar. He proceeds to tell a story about how he witnessed a massacre in a similar bar by a mysterious man. Rodriguez cuts back and forth between the storyteller and what happened at the bar to the strains of “Jack the Ripper” by Link Wray.
 
What is immediately clear from this opening scene is how far Rodriguez has progressed as a filmmaker. The screenplay is well-written as Steve Buscemi delivers his hilarious monologue with gusto. The director’s technique has also gotten better as the opening gunfight is stylishly choreographed with the El Mariachi (Banderas) dispatching bad guys like something out of a 1980s action movie as a shotgun blast sends a goon hurtling through the air.

It is interesting to note that Rodriguez not only plays up the mythic quality of El Mariachi, introducing him walking into a bar in slow motion in the shadows so you never get a good look at his face, but also has fun with the character as well, showing him playing with his band in a nightclub over the opening credits. El Mariachi even has time to stop a bar fight by striking a patron with his guitar without missing a beat. Rodriguez reveals that this sequence is a dream as we see the villain from El Mariachi appear in the nightclub and we flashback to the end of that film.
 
Another fa├žade is stripped away when it is revealed that the story Buscemi’s character told was exaggerated for effect – he’s El Mariachi’s hype man. Armed with a guitar case full of weapons, the musician cum killer is working his way through the Mexican criminal underworld to find and kill Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida), the man responsible for his wife’s death. Not surprisingly, the crime lord is surrounded by an army of flunkies, chief among them Navajas (Danny Trejo), a man armed with a seemingly endless supply of throwing knives. El Mariachi is aided in his quest for revenge by Carolina (Salma Hayek), the beautiful local bookstore owner who patches him up whenever he’s wounded (which is often).
 
In the film’s second action sequence, Rodriguez really cuts loose as he transforms Banderas into a two-gun-toting action hero in the tradition of John Woo’s heroic bloodshed films. Apart from doves flying in slow motion, it features many of Woo’s trademark action flourishes but with a cheeky sense of humor as El Mariachi and the last man left search frantically for a weapon that has bullets before he eventually breaks the man’s neck to the strains of “Strange Face of Love” by Tito & Tarantula. It is a beautifully choreographed action sequence that demonstrates his skill as not just a director but as an editor as he times the cuts to the rhythm of the action. When it comes to action editing is everything and Rodriguez understands this intuitively.

Rodriguez cast Antonio Banderas at just the right time in their respective careers. The former needed to cast a movie star and the latter was looking for a change of pace having just come off the big budget adaptation of Interview with the Vampire (1994). Banderas not only has the charisma to carry the film, he also demonstrates an ability to go from dramatic moments to comedic ones with ease. He also showed his ability to handle action, transforming himself into a credible action star. The actor also has wonderful chemistry with Salma Hayek as their characters develop a romantic relationship over the course of the film.
 
Desperado was Hayek’s first mainstream, Hollywood role, cast by Rodriguez against the wishes of the studio. The impossibly beautiful actor holds her own against the likes of Banderas as she demonstrates a light, comic touch and dramatic chops when Carolina explains why she is complicit with Bucho’s dealings with the town, aiding and abetting his drug operation in order to survive. She forces El Mariachi to realize that his desire for revenge is not the only reason to take out Bucho – it would also free the town of his tyrannical hold on it. He is a tragic hero and she gives him a reason to keep on going after he fulfills his goal.
 
Desperado would mark the beginning of a long-running collaboration with several actors, including Banderas, Hayek, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, and Quintin Tarantino, who he met on the film festival circuit while promoting El Mariachi. He made Tarantino the lead on his next film, From Dusk Till Dawn and has often featured him in cameos where he delivers a monologue and is then killed off in gruesome fashion. Marin and Trejo make quite an impression with the former playing a grinning bartender that meets his fate at the hands of the El Mariachi and the latter in a silent role as a deadly assassin brought in to take out the film’s hero but in an unexpected twist is taken out prematurely through a comic case of mistaken identity.

 
After the success of El Mariachi, Rodriguez was eager to make a sequel and capitalize on his new deal with Sony Columbia but the studio put on the brakes while they dealt with the Heidi Fleiss scandal that broke in early summer of 1993. She was a high-end madam that facilitated call girls to several of Hollywood’s elite and a list of her clients, which included at least two studio executives, appeared in the press. At the time, producers Carlos Gallardo (who starred in El Mariachi), Elizabeth Avellan, and line producer Bill Borden had already begun pre-production and realized that the film was on hold until the scandal blew over. Never one to be idle, Rodriguez shifted gears and accepted another gig making Roadracers that he shot in less than two weeks in January 1994 for $1 million. It was his first Hollywood production and working with a union crew. He was struck by how wasteful and slow studio productions were as he was used to collaborating with a small, hand-picked crew that worked fast. It would give him a taste of what he would be in store for when working for Sony.
 
By the summer of 1994, Rodriguez finally got the greenlight to make his Mariachi sequel, then known as The Return of El Mariachi but soon changed to Pistolero during production and eventually became Desperado. Ironically, this was due in large part to his future employer – Bob and Harvey Weinstein – who approached Sony executive Stephanie Allain at the Cannes Film Festival telling her what a fan they were of El Mariachi and how they would be more than happy to make the sequel with Rodriguez.
 
The studio wanted a name actor cast in the lead role and Allain suggested Antonio Banderas but Rodriguez was hesitant to cast a non-Mexican in the part. Undeterred, Allain showed Banderas El Mariachi and he loved it. He said, “I thought, ‘This guy has incredible energy.’ It reminds me of the first films I did with (Pedro) Almodovar. Not in his style, of course. But it’s like, you know, the same thing, when you don’t have any money and you’re working outside the studio, with no trailer, no nothing, just waiting on the corner to do your shot. And I thought, ‘Wow! That’s the kind of cinema I would like to do again.’” She told Rodriguez this and he agreed to meet with the actor.

Rodriguez and Avellan saw a rerun of Salma Hayek on comedian Paul Rodriguez’s talk show from 1992 where she talked about changing Hollywood’s refusal to cast Latina actresses. The next day, Avellan called her and asked her to audition for the female lead in Desperado. In addition to competing with many other Latina actresses, auditioning many times and performing several screen tests, she was up against the likes of Cameron Diaz who the studio liked as, according to Hayek, “her last name was Diaz, so they said she can be Mexican.” Originally Raul Julia had been cast as Bucho and Rodriguez had scheduled principal photography around his availability but when he suffered a stroke that preceded his death, he was replaced by Argentine actor Joaquim de Almeida.
 
On Desperado, Rodriguez was working with a significantly larger budget of $7 million and returned to Acuna, Mexico to use the same locations he had on his first film. It was a challenging shoot with cast and crew members staying on both sides of the border and filming equipment shipped in from both Mexico and the United States. During the first week of shooting the studio was not happy and threatened to fire people until Rodriguez showed them dailies and cut together a couple of trailers to give them a taste of what he was doing.
 
In addition, the studio insisted on using department heads and imposed a more traditional studio structure, which Rodriguez balked at having been used to working with a small crew and doing a lot of the different jobs himself. Gary Martin, head of physical production at Sony, was being told exaggerated stories that the filmmaker was “throwing a lot of tantrums and kicking cameras” on location with key crew members, such as director of photography Guillermo Navarro, ready to quit. Avellan claims that Borden was the source for a lot of disinformation and discord, creating problems on the set. Borden even played Gallardo, Avellan and Rodriguez against each other. When Allain called Avellan and asked her about these rumors she responded that everything was fine and defended Rodriguez. Avellan told Rodriguez about Borden and they decided to keep a close eye on him.

Hayek remembers that the film’s steamy sex scene her character has with El Mariachi was not in the screenplay and was added after a screen test. To try and make her as comfortable as possible, Rodriguez filmed it on a closed set with just him, Avellan and Banderas but Hayek found it a difficult experience nonetheless.

Martin met with Avellan and told her that Rodriguez would not be editing the film himself as he had done on El Mariachi and told her, “Honey, just like when you go to a beauty parlor and somebody does your nails because they specialize in that and somebody does your color because they specialize in that, it’s the same in the movie business.” Insulted, Avellan said nothing in order to keep the peace between Rodriguez and the studio but inside she was fuming. Post-production began in November 1994 in Los Angeles with the studio finally allowing Rodriguez to edit his own film but only if he did it there where they could keep an eye on him. Rodriguez said:
 
“They just didn’t want me to have that much control, but they let me do it. That was a big mistake because it sets another precedent. If my next movie hadn’t been Desperado, if I had done one of the really big budget movies they were offering me, I would have lost that control.”
 
His studio experience on Desperado soured the filmmaker on ever working in Hollywood and convinced him to put down permanent roots in Austin. With his deal done with Sony, he made his next film, From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), for indie film darlings Miramax who gave the kind of creative freedom he craved.

Desperado garnered mixed to negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it two out of four stars and wrote, "Rodriguez has a lively color sense, a good feel for composition and a willingness to put the camera anywhere it can possibly go. What happens looks terrific. Now if he can harness that technical facility to a screenplay that's more story than setup, he might really have something." In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Overdependence on violence also marginalizes Desperado as a gun-slinging novelty item, instead of the broader effort toward which this talented young director might have aspired. It's still clear that Mr. Rodriguez has a talent for fancy directorial footwork and that his movie has its fiery moments. But not even a Mariachi in Mr. Banderas's league can get by on looks alone."
 
In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, "if you’re not a fan of huge explosions, oversized weapons and people getting sliced and diced in all kinds of ways, Desperado doesn’t have a lot more to offer." The Washington Post's Desson Howe wrote about Rodriguez's jump from indie film to his big budget remake/sequel: "the commercial transition has been remarkably successful. This is primarily thanks to Rodriguez, who not only retains the original movie's kinetic flair, but takes it further. Finally, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman gave it a "B" rating and wrote, "The dawdling pace has us lingering a little too much over Desperado‘s primitive human dimensions. Still, when Rodriguez unleashes a scene with Banderas leaping backwards from one building to the next, or with a couple of mariachis launching rockets from their guitar cases, he’s a true corker. The action, in all its demonically outlandish wit, is its own show."
 
At the time, Desperado was a breath of fresh air in the action genre by starring a Latino actor with a predominantly Latino cast that also had universal appeal. In many respects it is a modern western with El Mariachi as a lone gunslinger that walks into town and rids it of the bad guys. Much like one of his cinematic heroes, director George Miller, Rodriguez draws inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces with El Mariachi as this mythic figure that makes the hero’s journey to redemption. In this respect, Desperado is part Mad Max myth-making and part John Woo action melodrama. Rodriguez gives this template a novel spin by having his film showcase Latino culture and present a hero that can be celebrated, which was largely absent in the mainstream at the time. It can’t be stated enough how significant an achievement that was back then or even now for that matter. Like, Evil Dead 2, Desperado is the rare successful remake/sequel hybrid that manages to not alienate fans of the first film while appealing to people who haven’t seen it. The film demonstrated that Rodriguez could work with bigger budgets and movie stars, paving the way for a fantastic career that he made his way.
 

 
SOURCES
 
Frederick, Candice. “’The Studio Wanted Cameron Diaz’: Salma Hayek on the Role that Changed Her Life.” Elle. October 15, 2020.

Leydon, Joe. “Cranking up the Volume.” Los Angeles Times. November 27, 1994.
 
Macor, Allison. Chainsaws, Slackers and Spy Kids: 30 Years of Filmmaking in Austin, Texas. University of Texas Press. 2010.
 
Martinez, Jose and Christian Divine. “Hispanic Blood: An Interview with Robert Rodriguez.” Creative Screenwriting. December 21, 2015