El Mariachi is the first film from director Robert Rodriguez. Although his first major success, Desperado, borrows heavily from the Mexican Western, there’s a certain playful exuberance which underpins his debut. It’s a very rough film – one which doesn’t quite have the shine of a finished major motion picture release – but there’s enough charm and wit bubbling away to carry the film over the line. It’s quirky and perhaps a little cheeky, but it’s also surprisingly respectful of the genre and of the films around it. It almost lacks the ridiculously gratuitous nature of his later efforts, though perhaps here he was restrained by a tiny budget.
Still, despite the fact that this very clearly wasn’t a blockbuster, there’s a strong sense of Rodriguez as a director to watch. He’s clearly not the strongest writer in the world – although there are moments where the script’s wit shines through, it’s a very conventional little story – but he’s a fascinating visual choreographer. His style is perhaps best described as “kinetic” – the camera is always on edge, ready to swoop in and out. Passing a soda becomes an action akin to throwing a punch. It is not so frequently used that it becomes intrusive or even banal, but it instead helps create the impression that, at any given moment, something could happen. Even during the relatively quiet moments, there’s a palpable tension hanging in the air.
Rodriguez here tackles a fairly conventional Western story. A lone stranger wanders into town, not looking for trouble. Trouble finds him never-the-less, due to a case of mistaken identity. The Mariachi of the title is a wandering musician, looking to find a place to play his guitar so he can entertain those around him (and etch a living), but finds himself constantly squeezed out by more advanced forms of entertainment (including a synthesizer). Rodriguez creates the impression that the traveling artist is finding himself obsolete, perhaps like the genre he finds himself in – these days the Western is essentially dead as an artform. Sure, there’s the odd attempt to revive it every now and again, but it looks like the glory days are gone.
What immediately distinguishes the film from most other examples of the genre, is the sense of energy that Rodriguez instills into it. There’s always a sense of an over-the-top moment around the corner or a cheeky little bit of humour to found amid the action sequences. Even the decision to set the film in Mexico works well, not just because the country works well as a modern version of the “Wild West”, but because the bright colour schemes look impressive on film (and the weathered look of these bright paint jobs helps reflect the sense of decay).
All of Rodreguez’s trademarks can be seen here. In fact, one can trace back a lot of the director’s quirks back to this film. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that if you are familiar with Rodriguez’s backlog you’ve already seen most of El Mariachi, even without watching the film itself. Not withstanding the quasi-remake of the film as Desperado, I spotted a stunt sequence which I am convinced was borrowed for a key scene in Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
It isn’t that the movie is without weaknesses. It is, after all, a Robert Rodriguez movie. It is loud and gaudy and excessive, while the script isn’t especially clever or well-written (in fact, the Mariachi’s narrative comes across as somewhat awkward and heavy-handed). That said, a lot of these problems are heavily mitigated by the fact that movie is under an hour and twenty minutes long. You can forgive a movie a lot of its flaws when it breezes by – particularly with energy like this film.
The only hint that the film was produced on a tiny budget is the low quality of the film stock itself. Viewed in high definition, the film appears quite speckled and grainy – suggesting that Rodriguez wasn’t able to use the highest quality stock in making the film. That said, the film still mostly looks good – the colours are rich and the soundtrack is effective (if not entirely innovative or original). It is easy to see how the director made it from there to his current status – there’s a lot of raw talent on display here, despite the constraints you can feel on the production.
El Mariachi isn’t a classic. It is, however, a clear indication of Rodriguez’s talents and a handy suggestion of what lay ahead for the filmmaker. You can detect his hand in the production of this film, and it’s like looking at a picture that has yet to fully develop. Still, all the right pieces are there and there’s an undeniable sense of talent. The best was yet to come, but this makes a very solid starting point.