El Mariachi – Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Premiere
All-Time Domestic & Worldwide $2,040,920 (1993 release)
El Mariachi remains an action indie masterclass showcasing director Robert Rodriguez’s voice amid the lack of a high budget.
23-year-old Robert Rodriguez was a new arrival to the Toronto International Film Festival 30 years ago. His film, El Mariachi, is a $7,000 labor of love. Made by funds acquired from being a literal lab rat, Rodriguez made a grimy tribute to Spanish-language action films that spread throughout the Latin American market and harbored the B-movie shelves of mom-and-pop video shops. What came to be a miracle of a film would be the launching path for someone who is now a household name to most film (and Star Wars) fans.
An unnamed mariachi (Carlos Gallardo), complete with a guitar, stumbles into the city of Acuna, looking for a place to work as a musician. That same day, a criminal named Azul (Reinol Martinez) also comes into town with a guitar case filled with guns, weapons, and ammo. Notorious crime boss Moco (Peter Marquardt) is looking for Azul to stop him from killing him out of revenge. Unfortunately, the mariachi gets roped in, confused for Azul, with men chasing him throughout the city. The mariachi hides away in the bar owned by Domino (Consuelo Gomez) for safe keeping, but that will not last very long as the more Azul is sought after.
El Mariachi is a delightful grindhouse romp unashamed to be a B-movie actioner. Fortunately, the budget does not deter the flash of Rodriguez’s direction or style. Instead, Rodriguez uses the near-lack budget to his benefit to find workarounds to give his film a voice that stands out among the pack.
The style is rooted in action exploitation films that carry the sleaze, yet the sleaze never looked as good at this. There are handheld shots and pans that not even films starring Slyvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzeneggar displayed. The camera never feels static to bore, yet it is never constantly moving to make the viewer feel nauseous upon viewing. The dolly shots feel akin to the manic direction of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson’s earlier works. These were achieved using a wheelchair as there was no money to get a dolly rig. The close-ups and wide lens shots elevate the film to being something more. The nightmares of the mariachi are also helped by the lo-fi effects with a rolling beheaded criminal, though cheap-looking, supporting the fantastical terror. It’s a beautiful renegade style that I adore.
Rodriguez also does not shy away from the action either. Keeping his eye on the action helps keep the viewer engaged and not in utter confusion. The best action movies keep the action in focus without a barrage of cuts or moving the camera everywhere but where the action takes place. This is missing in modern action cinema, save John Wick or The Raid, thanks to these action tropes and the standardization of the Marvel Cinematic Universe action sequence. The violence is also crafty, seeing how most squibs were created on set or improvised. This can be hit or miss for some viewers. Some gore and blood look closer to a community theater production. Other moments can be seen as downright brutal. The most brutal bit is seeing the unnamed mariachi get his hand nearly blown off, resulting in an effect that feels too real to be faked. I screamed aloud, “Holy shit,” due to the disgust of it all. Credit where credit is due, this is my second time seeing this film, and I’m still impressed seeing that moment.
In the acting department, El Mariachi relies on amateur actors to make ends meet. The film was shot to hit the Latin American video market, hence the decision to have it in Spanish. Yet, they all nail it by making them all feel realistic. Gallardo does a great job conveying the naivety of being a lone mariachi. Banderas does not follow this path, but he makes his own character in Desperado. Judging by the end of the film, it’s clear exactly why the character is much different from the opening credits of that film. The only funny outlier is seeing Marquardt as Moco delivers lines clearly in a language he does not know, with ham and cheese in each line. It makes up for the lack of pronunciation, sounding like cheap dubbing in some parts. It’s also interesting in the subtitles to see how certain slang words are translated into the text. Spanish is my second language, so seeing “guey” gets translated into “asshole” is hysterical to me since I mostly know “guey” as being on the same wavelength of calling someone “dude” or “bro.” Consuelo Gomez as Domino is my favorite character, not just because I was crushing on her. Her scene interrogating the mariachi in the bath is funny if it is intimidating, leading to a fun reveal and showing how much she could jest with the best of them.
El Mariachi is an indie masterclass showing that it’s not the film’s budget that matters but rather the style and heart of the person behind the camera. It is still remembered for standing on its own among the pack of other indies and action romps of the 90s. It also allowed Rodriguez to go in wild directions in his career. I admire Robert Rodriguez’s work ethic and style, even if some movies of his can miss more than hit for me. He gave his literal blood, sweat, and tears to make his dream possible. That’s something I still hope to learn from to get into the field I wish to be in.
Revue Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Next week, before Gen Z, there was Gen X. Brew Seattle’s finest coffee, throw on your flannel and crank up Alice in Chains’ Dirt because it’s time to review Singles.