Desperado December 31, 2019
Joaquim de Almeida
1 Hr., 47 Mins.
he iconic promotional posters for 1995’s terrific Desperado give away the movie’s best shot. But when it arrives partway through the film it’s so electric that it feels like we’re seeing it for the first time. Midway into the Mexico-set Desperado, which stars Antonio Banderas as the vengeful vigilante El Mariachi and Salma Hayek as his up-for-anything wingwoman Carolina, the feature’s leads beat up several toughs, with the
melee then moving across a succession of rooftops. The violent series of events concludes with an explosion. As the bomb in question goes off behind them, Banderas and Hayek walk in the opposite direction with their faces placid and their bodies composed. With the image comes an understanding that these heroes are so difficult to unsettle that a torrent of flames chasing after them might make either person say, if to directly face the fire, “oh, that.”
In a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Banderas was asked about this moment specifically and remembered, above all else, the smell of burnt hair. His, Hayek’s, the crew's. (He also whacked his head in the lead-up — sounds like a safe movie to make, if you ask me.) This brief, in some ways sacrificial moment sums up the film’s ethos. Desperado is the sort of fantastical movie where the good guys are almost comically crackerjack in contrast to the goons who chase after them. So we get a nice thrill seeing all the ways these crusaders are going to go about outsmarting their opponents. Doesn’t matter if they also feel a tad unrealistically invincible. That’s part of the fun.
Desperado is the second movie in the El Mariachi saga. (Sometimes it’s called the Mexico trilogy.) The series began in 1992 and was the feature-length filmmaking debut of Robert Rodriguez. The movie, done independently, now lives on as the product of one of those touching Hollywood success stories. It cost about $7,000 to make but earned some $2 million, serving as an auspicious start for a long and varied career. (In fact it holds a world record for the smallest-budgeted movie to make at least $1 million in theaters.)
The plot in El Mariachi is like Desperado’s: the title character is a vigilante seeking revenge, targeting those who had a hand in ruining his life. (In El Mariachi, the lover of the eponymous character, once a budding musician, is killed — something for which he understandably wants to find catharsis. Now he keeps guns in his guitar case.) The differences with Desperado lie in that it has bigger stars and more money to work with, and the bad guys are a layer above the ones featured in El Mariachi. The villains here are a drug lord named Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida) and his men; we find out exactly how they’re connected to El Mariachi later on.
There isn’t a lot of plot here. Desperado constitutes a bunch of action sequences broken up by conceptually platitudinous scenes which more or less revolve around a clever comic bit, a romantic interlude (courtesy of Banderas and Hayek), or an onslaught of exposition. But Rodriguez, like his eminent colleague and friend Quentin Tarantino (who also has a small role in the feature), has a good eye for atmosphere and can make the most simplistic of a gunfight and/or fists-only battle tango. It doesn’t matter if what he’s doing is foundationally traditional. He remixes familiarity.
Rodriguez has evidently studied the distinctive camera setups of spaghetti westerns and 1970s revenge thrillers. But the film feels like the product of a careful DJ rather than a minimally risky imitator. Plus, Banderas and Hayek are naturals at this. Banderas is a throwback to the charming swashbucklers of old Hollywood (you get why he was cast soon afterward in 1998’s The Mask of Zorro), a hint of action-hero self-satisfaction subtly underlining his character’s angst. Hayek, while not tethered to the expectations of action choreography like Banderas, has a hardened scrappiness to her that ensures she’s an equal rather than a textbook damsel.
In reviews of the film published upon release, you can tell that Desperado was mostly considered flatly insubstantial — a cheap thrill that preferred carnage to soul. But to my eye the balance is fine, and I think if Desperado were released now it would be a palliative change of pace from the big-budgeted, factory-made-feeling movies that tend to encompass mainstream action as of late. There’s a flesh-and-bloodedness to the spectacle of Desperado that energizes it. I hope that for its makers and stars, the burned hair and bonked heads were worth it. A-