For the ’90s were also a great decade of personality-heavy American independent directors finding themselves awash in a Hollywood positively chomping at the bit to ingest them and feed their every whim. Sometimes, and only sometimes, the results are inarguable…
Desperado really ought fall apart within minutes, but in merrily saunters our old friend “cinematic passion” saving the day with its hands tied behind its back like it’s no ones business. Desperado is at least a fourth too long and a touch too episodically giddy for its own good, but it has in spades what other films simply dream of: an incorrigible, infectious love for itself. As ungainly as the script my be on the surface, Desperado never plays out as anything other than what it is: second time director Robert Rodriguez, a haphazard mess of a director if ever there was one, thoroughly in love with the fact that he had just been given a boatload of Hollywood money to update his debut release El Mariachi with all the toys the big leagues can afford. That is what the facts of Desperado’s release tell us, and that is exactly what unfolds, often wonderfully, on screen.
Desperado is a direct sequel to El Mariachi, albeit with cast traded out and the growing influence of cinematic verve bolstering and propping up Rodriguez’s more everyday treatment of ’70s grindhouse cinema for the independent ’90s in El Mariachi. It’s a touch too complicated, but at some level this is all part and parcel with the wrapped-up-in-soap-opera aesthetic Rodriguez throws himself so fully into. We open on an American in Mexico (Steve Buscemi) who waltzes right up into the heart of a veritable thieves’ den of a bar and regales his audience and Rodriguez’s with the tale of El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas, exuding classical Hollywood swagger and confidence), “the biggest Mexican you’ve ever seen” or some such beast. Buscemi, wielding his bug eyes like light bulbs into his victims’ souls, exudes the snake-oil charisma of a back alley ringmaster, and it’s probably fitting that Rodriguez seems most palpably hairs-on-end here; after all, this scene is his manifesto, Buscemi standing in for the guerilla-style director himself and telling a miniaturized variant of the story Rodriguez will bounce off our eyes for the next two hours.
Just because Rodriguez opens with a showstopper doesn’t mean his energy goes anywhere but directly into his film afterwards. We eventually learn El Mariachi has it in for local gang leader Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida), and El himself will come to fall in love with a local bookshop proprietor Carolina (Salma Hayek), but Rodriquez’s skill and passion is not in spellbinding us with breadth. Rather, it is in trickling us through a classically mounted tale with zest and panache and a devout investment in Old Hollywood storybook zeal married to Grindhouse aesthetics for which the 1990s only have use in that they allow him a tad more violence and money to tell his tale (isn’t that the core of the ’90s aesthetic anyway?). When Rodriguez zips between grainy schlock and fantastical blankets of sideshow romance, with unrestrained tangents courtesy of his buddy Quentin Tarantino’s motor-mouth ego serving only as ornamentation, it’s easy to blame him for an aesthetic that is too messy to have a sense of its own identity. But this sense of almost free-will improvisational exploration of fiction’s various forms, sidestepping to the telenovela along the way (as if the other half dozen aesthetics weren’t enough already), is too passionately messy to overlook.
Rodriguez clearly fashions himself a genre director, and it’s a good thing he’s got style to spare. His action direction is not merely sharp; bullets and explosions implode on the screen like their own perverse art form. Again, the key is that he is enjoying himself, and his internal pleasures manifest in the external world of cinema. His film is dripping with sultry sweat and swagger, lost in its own internal cool and backed with enough fire and brimstone filmmaking to earn its ego trip. The final shootout is a prime example: El and two friends stand guard against a veritable army of interlopers, defending themselves rather idiotically and paying no attention to the logic of how one would want to position oneself in a shootout. But this is not a logical world; it is Rodrigeuz’s mind, and he gets by because his ode to classical genre cinema knows that this is exactly the sort of larger-than-life buffoonery classical genre cinema built its underground empire on. When one of the three busts out a guitar-case rocket-launcher, it works not because we think its cool or because it is cool, but because Robert Rodriguez thinks it is cool. His shot selection, his editing, and his composition all inform that, and because he is honest with his childlike sense of joy, we feel it too.
The best thing about Desperado beyond its storybook style is the way it sells the chicanery through genuine belief in its own purpose. Rodriguez is clearly enamored with Sergio Leone for one, and he understands the great truth of all of Leone’s great films: they are tactile works where every mood, every character, every story shift is conveyed primarily through the raw “feel” of the film. In Desperado, as with, say, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, we feel every sweat gland perspiring as if it was dripping from the frame, our throats dry and starving off the desperation in the arid grain and left-out-in-the-sun-too-long cinematography of the film itself. More than any film he’s yet made, Desperado is a trip into Robert Rodriguez’s still young, hungry mind, and the results are as palpable and carnal to us as they probably are to him. As with any hungry young director, there are problems aplenty, including the grand problem of our cinematic era: it’s too long, and unchecked as he is here, Rodriguez is having too much fun with himself to stop when he’s hit his entropic peak. Still, too much of a good thing is preferable to a bad thing, and Desperado, when it’s good, is almost unimpeachable.