Sunday, July 3, 2011

Movie Review: Desperado

Let's play.
Some cinema experiences remain permanently etched in my memory. One of those is Robert Rodríguez’s Desperado, the sequel to his 1992 breakout indie hit El mariachi. I was 17 years old when a large group of us went to see Desperado at our local second-run cinema (when they still existed). We sat up in the balcony and laughed and cheered our way through ridiculous action sequences, a hilarious opening action sequence with monologue accompaniment by Steve Buscemi and two gorgeous leads in Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek.

We recognized at the time that what we were witnessing was not your typical studio action extravaganza, but a very sharp send-up of such action rubbish. In the process, Rodríguez also crafted a pretty decent action flick in its own right.

While Desperado is technically a sequel, it also functions perfectly as a stand-alone film. When I first saw it I had not yet seen El mariachi and I was not lost. Rodríguez made sure to include enough exposition, including a dream-like flashback, to fill in the gaps for the uninitiated. The story had to be established like this as it was Columbia Pictures that commissioned a sequel after the success of the first film, but recognizing that a sizable portion of the audience would be coming into the film without having seen El mariachi, it was marketed as something new.

I wonder if it’s because exaggerated and over-the-top action has become the standard in studio productions, but Desperado now feels less like subtle satire and more like a genuine attempt at action. But considering the film in context, back in 1995 having bad guys sent flying through the air toward the ceiling from the blast of a shotgun was so absurd it HAD to be a joke. This theory, I believe is further compounded by the fact that it’s mainly that first action sequence that is truly insane. But are we supposed to be seeing events as they actually occurred? Keep in mind it’s a story being told by Buscemi, el mariachi’s (Banderas) friend whose job is to grease the wheels in preparation for the gunman’s eventual arrival. So it’s meant to come across like a mythical legend. Most of the action that takes place throughout the rest of the film is, while not exactly realistic, much more grounded.

The second big action sequence, which lasts nearly ten minutes, involves el mariachi tearing up a bar and about 20 or so henchmen, many of whom have automatic weapons. He continues to find new and inventive ways to get himself out of an impossible situation. This shootout culminates in a slow motion walk down the street that ends in what might be one of the all-time great cinematic introductions of a female lead. Salma Hayek (as Banderas’s love interest Carolina) enters frame for the first time while crossing the street. Her absolutely stunning body and breathtaking beauty gets a giant wink as she causes a car accident, her response being little more than a dainty laugh, signaling perhaps that she’s well aware of what she’s flaunting.

Desperado picks up some time long after El mariachi finished, yet invents a whole storyline (very similar to the first film’s) in order to keep it going. He may have killed Mauricio earlier but now he’s on the hunt for a drug dealer named Bucho (Joachim de Almeida) who he blames for killing his girl. Presumably, Bucho is the next big man on the drug cartel food chain because it was actually Mauricio who pulled the trigger on Domino, but never mind about that. Those are just details. Rodríguez needed someone for El Mariachi to hunt and lots of new underlings to blast into oblivion – and there is plenty of that.

Rodríguez is obviously heavily influenced by his friend and sometime colleague Quentin Tarantino (who makes a memorable cameo telling a bad joke with perfect delivery). It’s a film that strives to be hip and cool (the rock soundtrack even seems somehow borrowed from a Tarantino film) but a bit trashier in a totally outrageous way than QT’s work.

This is just one of those films that is pure fun, well-made entertainment. Banderas is the epitome of cool here. There are few movies I’ve thoroughly enjoyed in the cinema and then gone on to continue enjoying for years afterward. This is one of them.

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