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There's a scene about two-thirds of the way through Robert Rodriguez's Desperado where the stylish villain of the piece, a white-suited drug lord named Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida), orders one of his underlings to dispose of someone who has aroused his displeasure. But the underling isn't meant to simply shoot this unfortunate individual. Oh, no. Instead, the underling is supposed to be, well, discreet. "Make it look like an accident," Bucho rasps.
At this point, the audience can be forgiven for laughing out loud, or even shouting rude things at the screen.
By the time Bucho issues this particular death warrant in Desperado, which is the sort of high-octane, full-throttle blow-'em-up that would make Sam Peckinpah proud, dozens of bit players already have been shot, stabbed or otherwise perforated, then scattered across the screen like so much blood-splattered confetti. It's a little late in the day for Bucho to worry about such niceties as covering one's tracks. His concern for appearances is, in this context, more than a little absurd.
And that, no doubt, is just what Rodriguez intends us to think.
At once a straight-shooting action-adventure and a tongue-in-cheek riff on such high-testosterone entertainment, Desperado is the immensely entertaining follow-up to Rodriguez's near legendary El Mariachi, the micro-budget sleeper about a hapless musician who must shoot first and ask questions later after being mistaken for a notorious hit man in a hard-scrabble border town. Rodriguez filmed El Mariachi for $7,000 and some change in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, four years ago, while he was still a student at the University of Texas. As more than one critic noted, a large part of the movie's appeal was that it actually looked like it cost $7,000. More important, it also looked like the work of a natural-born filmmaker who knew just where to aim his camera, just when to edit, and just how to pace an action sequence. When you have that much talent and you flaunt it so brazenly, it's only a matter of time before someone hands you more money to deliver something bigger, louder and more aggressively commercial.
Columbia Pictures gave Rodriguez $7 million to make Desperado, a quasi-sequel to El Mariachi, and he has given them -- and us -- a rock-the-house riot of rapid-fire excitement. This is not another case of Hollywood's seducing and corrupting some quirkily talented novice. Anyone who watched El Mariachi could tell that Rodriguez, a San Antonio native who resides in Austin, was destined to make movies like this. While filmmakers of an earlier generation may have looked to Citizen Kane or The 400 Blows for inspiration, Rodriguez belongs to the new breed who worship at the altars of John Woo (The Killer), Walter Hill (48 Hrs.) and Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars). Like his obvious mentors, Rodriguez draws images and archetypes from the entire history of action movies, then filters them through a highly self-aware sensibility. The big difference is, Rodriguez takes everything a few steps beyond, and pushes everything a bit further into the ozone. Whereas Sergio Leone's Man With No Name might gun down five or six adversaries on a Wild West street, Rodriguez's Mariachi will dispatch a couple of dozen bad guys before the folks in the audience have completely settled into their seats. Why? Well, if you have to ask, this isn't the movie for you. But just so you'll know: because they're bad guys. Get it?
The exaggeration doesn't end with the body count. When the Mariachi recalls his halcyon days as a musician, he flashes back to a performance that appears only slightly less lavish than the ones Elvis offered in Las Vegas. Later, when our hero must call some old friends for help, the buddies arrive bearing missile-launching guitars that likely would be outlawed by the Geneva Convention. At its frequent best, Desperado percolates with the same sort of exuberant inventiveness that children bring to war games with their action figures.
This time, instead of drafting a co-producer and fellow UT student to play the lead role, Rodriguez had the big bucks (relatively speaking) to hire Antonio Banderas to play the Mariachi. No longer a helpless innocent, the character has evolved into a brooding avenging angel whose guitar case contains a lethal array of weapons, and whose primary agenda is the eradication of all drug dealers near the Tex-Mex border. (As Rodriguez explains it, Desperado is to El Mariachi what The Road Warrior was to Mad Max -- a sequel that can be appreciated by audiences who have no knowledge of the original film.) Rodriguez makes a token effort to give the Mariachi some motivation for his mayhem -- in a flashback, we see that the Mariachi's sweetheart was killed by a cocky drug kingpin -- but this is just the flimsiest of excuses for an excess of firepower.
Like a warp-speed video game that exists only to shake quarters from the pockets of adolescents, Desperado is designed only to give audiences a maximum of bang for their bucks. Few of the supporting players are given anything like distinctive personalities. And even fewer of them -- almost none of them, really -- are still standing when the movie ends. Hordes of extras are mowed down like grass, and no one thinks anything of it. (In the grand tradition of other post-modern action films, Desperado gives us a world where police are as visible as leprechauns.) And even when a relatively sympathetic character -- say, the cynical sidekick played by Steve Buscemi -- is blown away, the audience is hard-pressed to feel the slightest twinge of regret. After all, how sorry do you feel when Pac-Man gobbles up a blue Blinkie?
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