Fewer people probably saw El Mariachi during its run in theaters than any other film in our countdown. And it was, without a doubt, the lowest-budget movie you’ll find in our coverage.
The film was written, directed, photographed and edited by Robert Rodriguez, who shot it over the course of two weeks in the Mexican border town of Acuña, across from Del Rio, Texas. You may recognize Rodriguez now as the director of schlock classics Sin City and From Dusk Till Dawn. But when he made El Mariachi, he was a 23-year-old unknown from San Antonio working with a budget of $7,000—or as critic Roger Ebert put it, “about what it costs to cater lunch for a day on a Schwarzenegger picture.”
The actors are unpaid volunteers and friends. The sets are whatever street or dusty bar Rodriguez could commandeer for an hour or two. There are no special effects or notable actors or expensive cars that get destroyed in high-speed crashes.
But you know what? This cult movie works in an unpolished way. And the setting—given the increased power of Mexican drug cartels—seems more relevant now that it did when El Mariachi was made.
The plot centers on the title character (played by Carlos Gallardo), a wandering guitarist who drifts into a small Mexican town looking for a gig. He dresses in black and, naturally, carries a guitar case.
His timing could not be worse. That same day, a revenge-crazed drug dealer named Azul breaks out of a local jail with the aim of killing his traitorous crime boss, who tried to have him assassinated. Azul, too, dresses in black and carries a guitar case—except that his is loaded with items like automatic pistols and brass knuckles.
That crime boss, named Moco, gives his goons a description of the dealer coming after him. “Don’t worry, Moco,” says one. “We will find him, kill him and feed him to the dogs.”
Thus begins the case of mistaken identity. As the naïve mariachi wanders from tavern to tavern looking for work, an armed hit squad gets on his trail. Soon enough, he is forced to put down his guitar and pick up a gun to defend himself—even though he has no idea why killers are pursuing him.
The transformation is a little abrupt. In one scene, he’s the wimpy guitar player bellying up to the bar to order a soda pop; in the next he eludes the posse by riding an electrical wire down from a second-story roof like Tarzan. Trapped on two sides by bad guys, he leaps over a truck, prompting the shooters to kill each other while aiming for him. Where did he learn that? In music school?
That’s basically the entire plot. There’s a doomed love interest with the mob boss’s ex-girlfriend, a half-dozen chase scenes and lots of carnage. Rodriguez doesn’t spend much time on character development. You quickly realize, because of his soulful eyes and mellow singing voice, that El Mariachi is a romantic. And you realize as well that Moco is evil because he wears white suits, orders a bikini-clad girlfriend to file his fingernails and enjoys lighting matches off his henchmen’s faces.
It all sets up for a great climactic showdown. Reminiscent of The Departed, half of the cast gets blown away in the final five minutes.
This is engaging stuff, and you may appreciate it more—rather than less—for the unsophisticated nature of the production. Yes, you sometimes see blood squibs pasted to characters before they explode, and yes, at least a few actors are clearly reading their lines off of cue cards. (You likely won’t hear those lines since the current DVD release is dubbed from Spanish to English. See if you don’t think the character of Azul sounds exactly like Joe Mantegna with a Mexican accent.)
But there’s a lot of energy and creativity in El Mariachi. Rodriguez has gone on to become a popular and successful director. Watching this film gives you the sense of watching a rock star back when he was in a neighborhood garage band.
Rodriguez later wrote of his adventures making this movie in the book, Rebel Without a Crew. He raised the money to buy film and the one handheld 16mm camera by working as a guinea pig for medical school experiments, most notably taking medication designed to lower cholesterol. That’s where he met one of the principal performers, Peter Marquardt, who plays Moco the kingpin. Marquardt’s a terrible actor, but we hear his triglyceride level is outstanding.
Rodriguez put the movie on VCR tape and sent it around Hollywood, just hoping to get a foot in the door. Executives at Columbia Pictures liked it so much they bought the rights and spent many times the original budget to convert it to 35mm and add Dolby sound. The movie won several awards, including the Audience Award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
HIT: There’s actually a lot of humor in this little gem. Watch for the scene where our hero loses a music gig to a one-man band whose electronic keyboard only plays polkas.
MISS: For no apparent reason, El Mariachi is interspersed with dream sequences, most of which involve a young boy playing soccer with a ball that morphs into a severed head. In his book, Rodriguez conceded that the scenes were meaningless, but said he included them for three reasons: to get the movie up to its 81-minute length, to show some of the beautiful scenery around Mexico, and, in his words, “When in doubt, have dream sequences.”
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The head in those scenes is modeled after Rodriguez himself. In keeping with the low-budget theme, the cheesy skull looks as much like something taken off an inflatable doll as it looks like the director.
REALITY CHECK: Even after the guitarist learns that armed killers are hunting him, he’s out at the town’s most popular nightclub, leading a crowd in song. For a guy with a price on his neck, he’s either too brave or too stupid.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “In a way, the unpolished look of El Mariachi and its players is what makes it so refreshing from the standard Hollywood action flick. . . . El Mariachi is nowhere near as extravagant as its successors, yet it remains a constant simple pleasure, best enjoyed with a shot of Patron and a cold Corona.”—Brian McKay, efilmcritic.com
BODY COUNT: Fourteen, plus one poor guy’s hand.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Some media members in Acuña were critical when Rodriguez showed up in town to film his movie. To win them over, the director gave small acting roles to two of them—a TV newsman and a newspaper columnist.
GOOF: We’re lenient with such a low-budget film, but Rodriguez would have been wise to spend a few bucks in one particular scene. The room where the sympathetic barmaid hides El Mariachi from the posse has a transparent glass door that would conceal no one.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Extremely high. Of that original $7,000 budget, we suspect that half of the money went for fake blood.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico—the second and third parts of the trilogy Rodriguez opens with this movie. Antonio Banderas replaces Gallardo (the director’s buddy) as El Mariachi. The sequels have superior sound, multiple cameras, Salma Hayek as eye candy and everything else a studio budget can buy. Still, we’ll take this little movie over those two for its heart.
Join us as we count down the greatest gangster movies of all time — a new entry every Thursday! Click here to see what you’ve missed so far.
[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]