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Desperado hits the bull's-eye with a fusillade of bullets

Mind you, that's meant merely as an observation, not criticism. The down-and-dirty truth of the matter is, Desperado is a great deal of oh-wow, gee-whiz fun, provided that you approach it with the correctly twisted attitude. In many respects, this is a truly subversive piece of work, serving up sharp-witted satire of the genre even as it revels in the genre's sure-fire conventions. Early in the action, Banderas' Mariachi, all decked out in bandit black, scampers across the bar in a dingy cantina, a blazing gun in either hand, mowing down bad guys as he twirls his arms this way, that way, any way, like a flamboyant bullfighter facing death in the afternoon. Eventually, he runs out of bullets -- even a fabulist such as Rodriguez is willing to acknowledge the basic law of supply and demand -- but that doesn't stop him for long. In just a blink of an eye, he's reloaded and ready for more action. And when a particularly poor marksmen fails to hit his intended target, the Mariachi razzes, "You missed me!"

There is only one rational response to such a spectacle: "Wow! Cool!"
Desperado is chock-a-block with scenes guaranteed to bring out the Saturday-matinee-loving child in you. Yet it's also sophisticated enough to make you laugh out loud at things that, during the earliest days of your movie-going, you used to take dead seriously. During that very same gunfight in the cantina, the Mariachi and his final opponent run out of bullets. There was a time when such a stand-off would end with our hero's fortuitously quick reloading. Not here, however. Desperado gives the cliche a deliciously wicked twist, one that involves the attempted use of many, many other empty guns. You can't help feeling that, had someone whispered a description of this scene into Sergio Leone's ear 30 years ago, we would have seen something very much like it in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Banderas, the Spanish-born hunk who has managed the tricky transition from imported art-house fare (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) to mainstream Hollywood movies (Miami Rhapsody), is a singularly graceful Mariachi. Indeed, one might have to go back to Douglas Fairbanks in his Mark of Zorro heyday to find an earlier big-screen hero who took such spirited and highly contagious delight in his own dashing physicality. Better still, Banderas has a straight-faced sense of humor about his character's larger-than-life shenanigans. When a priest offers to hear the Mariachi's confession, Banderas politely declines. After he kills a few dozen more bad guys, he says, "I'll just have to come back again."

Salma Hayek, a beautiful veteran of Mexican TV soap operas, makes an incendiary impression as (no kidding) a coffeehouse/bookstore owner who becomes the Mariachi's ally and lover. Joaquim de Almeida (Only You, Clear and Present Danger) looks like he was born to wear white suits and snarl at underlings. In other words, he is perfectly cast. Look for his likeness to appear soon on an action figure at a toy store near you.

Desperado. Directed by Robert Rodriguez. With Antonio Banderas, Joaquim de Almeida and Salma Hayek.

Rated R.
106 minutes.

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