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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?

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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Joe Leydon