Lawrence Russell

El Mariachi (1993) writ. and dir. Robert Rodriguez cine. Rodriguez star. Carlos Gallardo (El Mariachi), Consuelo Gomez (Domino), Peter Marquardt (Moco), Reinol Martinez (Azul), Jamie De Hoyes (Bigaton), Oscar Fabila (the Boy), Manuel Acosta (Bodyguard), Jesus Lopez (Viejo clerk) et. al.

There's a subtext in this movie that may or may not be intentional -- a class war that still runs through Mexican society, a legacy of the Conquest, which pits the mestizo against his half-brother and sometime partner, Senor Blanco. Here Mr. White is Moco (Peter Marquardt), a drug-dealer with a large gang and a ranch where he sits around the pool having his hair combed by a beautiful young woman who also brings him drinks and swims for his pleasure as he conducts his business on the phone. In fact, Moco is all white -- his skin, his clothes, his phone -- as if he is defining himself spiritually against the evil in his business and racially against his former partner, the burly chicano, Azul.

The prologue shows Azul sitting in his cell in a small jail, conducting "business" on the phone as if the state is merely providing him with an office, not incarceration. His bodyguard sleeps like a dog on a mat in the corner, a machine gun concealed in the wall. Corruption? Obviously. Azul's phone rings -- it's Moco, after all these years, offering to help him "escape". Azul says just pay him the money owed, his share of Moco's good fortune. Sure, says Moco, I'm sending someone to get you out today. A pickup truck rolls up with three armed hoods, who drop a wad of pesos on the desk of the jailer, a middle-aged police woman, and advance towards Azul's cell. But Azul is well-prepared for Moco's crude assassination attempt and, holding up the phone so his former partner can hear, orders his bodyguards to shoot the surprised assassins.

If the film was merely a simple run and gun drama between two Mexican druglords, it would be just another choreography of attitude, violence and artistic cynicism. But within its low-budget, hand-held cinematic assault is a lyrical story reminiscent of the folk ballad, the love song of the itinerant mariachi player, the poet of old Mexico. You see him on the highway -- dressed in black, guitar case in hand, young, anonymous, the generic player -- trying to hitch a ride. Ironically Azul's pickup roars past, neither men aware of the coincidence that is drawing them into a fable of action which will leave many people dead and change the survivor forever. "It was a morning like any other," says the young nameless mariachi. "No love, no luck, no ride... nothing changes."

"M." is following in the steps of his father and grandfather, his only goal to become a good player and one day die with his guitar in his hand. He eventually arrives in a small town (Acuna), has the good fortune to encounter the girl with the "beautiful northern eyes", Domino, in the first bar where he tries to get a gig. But unfortunately this happens to be a business belonging to Moco, and Domino, of course, is one of his sexual stringers. But worst of all, Azul is prowling the town looking for Moco -- also dressed in black and carrying a guitar case. The only instrument Azul plays, of course, is a machine gun.

So M. gets caught in the crossfire, mistaken for Azul by Moco's homicidal goons who ride the streets and alleys in their pickups like Beruit terrorists, brazenly waving their machine pistols and pump shotguns in broad daylight, engaging in gunbattles and chase routines like clowns from the Hollywood silent era. But there's a raw quality to the action which, despite its obvious choreography and absurd deaths, underscores the comedy with a certain black reality. Guns kill, and drug criminals are not adverse to using guns. The recent internecine killings in Ensenada of some drug traders and their families serves to remind you that El Mariachi isn't as fantastic as its comedy suggests.

Perhaps it's this raw duality that makes El Mariachi the preferred Rodriguez film. In Desperado, his large budget reprise, the duality is gone, replaced by the the slick choreography of the star, Antonio Banderas, and the murderous gunbattles become mere metaphor. While Banderas is outstanding, the mariachi played by Carlos Gallardo fits the historic paradigm postured in the original. Banderas is what Gallardo will become -- if the mariachi is to survive in the new Mexico.

M. is haunted by a recurring nightmare, perhaps a memory of his past masquerading as a chimera of his future. A young boy plays in the street, his ball becomes a severed head... M. enters a ruin, where the door exists as mere symbolism. The ruin is adjacent to a cemetery, and it's here that he sees a bloodied Domino in a prefiguration of their doomed love.

There's some great stuff here, visceral moments in the acting that make the melodrama more than a series of corny excesses: Moco's hideous laugh when he shoots a hole in M.'s hand... M.'s song, "Gauas di Vivir"... or when M. realizes he's the victim of a mistaken identity and exclaims, "If his name is Azul, why doesn't he wear blue?"

And... did you know it's possible to strike a match on a hoodlum's neck?

The editing rhythm is flawless, always the disciplined servant of the restless camera. Apparently Rodriguez used a wheel-chair as a dolly... a great chicano solution. Gives new meaning to the term, "Mexican overdrive".

© LR 25/7/99


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Film Court | copyright 1999 | Lawrence Russell