South of the Border, Down Mexico Way

Over a couple of nights I watched three films that play out like a Mexican version of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy.

El Mariachi (1992)

This is the film that put director Robert Rodriguez on the map. Bad guy Azul breaks out of gaol and goes gunning for crime boss Moco, who betrayed him. Moco sends an army of gun toting thugs to take care of him. Now here’s the problem – nobody except Moco knows what Azul looks like, but we do know that he dresses in black and carries a guitar case that’s loaded with guns. Unfortunately there is also a wandering musician (a mariachi) in town looking for work who just happens to fit the profile, and no, it’s not Johnny Cash. Unfortunately for Moco’s henchmen, our mariachi proves to be just as good at using guns as he is playing the guitar. Long story short, lots of people are shot, including the woman the mariachi falls in love with, and at the end only the one person walks away. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t find a way to turn off the director’s commentary on this DVD, so had to watch with subtitles for the dialogue and the sound off, which I’m sure somewhat subtracted from my enjoyment of the film. It looks very cheap, which is hardly surprising considering that it was shot on a budget of only $7,000, some of which Rodriguez raised by taking part in drug tests. Overall it felt patchwork, the director making up stuff on the hoof, and with the bad guys apparently able to do whatever they wish with no consequences. I’m not sure why Azul needed Moco’s help to get out of gaol when he had a cell full of guns and presumably could have left at any time, and the budget status of the film was never more obvious than in the depiction of the prison, which resembled a toilet block more than anything else. Similarly, I had a hard time dealing with the fact that the mariachi seemed so conversant with guns, despite his ostensibly peaceable nature, and the way in which he is able to cut down swathes of armed henchmen had about it something of the WTF. On the plus side, if hardly an original touch, the romance between the mariachi and Moco’s object of desire added some zest, there were some moments of black comedy courtesy of Azul and his goons, and both he and Moco were impressive as bad guys. I guess I liked it more than not, but I wish the sound had been okay.

Desperado (1995)

In many ways this is just a replay of the previous movie, but with a $7m budget and some name stars. Steve Buscemi opens proceedings, as an American at a bar telling stories to enhance the reputation of El Mariachi, this time around played by Antonio Banderas, who has made a full time career out of wiping out the drug cartel hierarchy and is now gunning for Moco’s boss, Bucho. And Bucho’s men are gunning for him, with a similar zeal. Salma Hayek gets to provide the love interest, bookshop owner Carolina who is also involved with Bucho (he finances her bookshop, so the guy isn’t all bad, at least in my book). Danny Trejo has a cameo as an assassin sent by Bucho’s Colombian suppliers and Tarantino puts in an appearance as an incidental bad guy. It all comes to the boil with a pitched battle in the centre of town, for which our hero enlists the help of two other mariachi, one of whom has a guitar case that doubles as a rocket launcher. The stage is set for a final showdown with Bucho, but there’s another, unexpected twist to be negotiated before our hero and his lady love can ride off into the sunset. And yeah, it’s a lot of fun. The stars are more photogenic, the cinematography is done with more oomph and colour, the gun battles are on a larger scale and have bigger explosions, and there are plenty of quirky plot developments, though aside from the Buscemi driven opening scene there’s none of the humour of the previous film. It’s pretty much the usual thriller package, guns and guitars at thirty paces, standing out from the pack because of the Mexican setting, the mariachi characters, and a gonzo approach to storytelling that takes no prisoners. I liked it a lot, though I doubt it will stand up to a second viewing.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

Eight years on and the budget blooms to $29m, and every penny of it is up there on the screen. Drug lord Barillo, played by a suitably sinister Willem Dafoe, is in cahoots with rebel general Ramirez to overthrow the president of Mexico. El Mariachi is recruited by CIA operative Sands to throw a spanner in the works, but he has his own reasons for cooperating (Ramirez murdered his wife Carolina and their child). After lots of manoeuvring and jockeying for position, with just about everybody betraying everybody else, we get the mother of all Mexican battles, with Ramirez and his army taking on the Presidential troops and armed villagers, and Team Mariachi there to swing the balance of firepower in favour of the good guys. Banderas reprises his role as El Mariachi, and we get some impressive flashback scenes of him and Hayek in action, all laying the groundwork for her death and his lust for revenge. Eva Mendes does a turn as a Barillo gun moll come honey trap, and Mickey Rourke is there as a hired gun on the drug lord’s payroll, in part sending himself up through the character’s possession of a rather underwhelming but certifiably cute dog. Danny Trejo pretty much repeats his role from the previous film, only this time around his character has a different name and is a freelance operative. Some of the plot twists probably don’t bear close examination, but they provide the impetus for the action and so can be justified on results if not means, while flashbacks aside the absence of any romantic shenanigans made a welcome and refreshing change. The thing that made the film for me though, was Johnny Depp’s gloriously over the top performance as ruthless CIA man Sheldon Sands, who is nutty as a fruitcake and twice as homicidal. He dominates the film whenever he is onscreen, and I suspect some of the character’s inflated mannerisms carried over into JD’s next role as a certain Jack Sparrow. The last and the best of the trilogy, not least for being the most ambitious.

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