Before Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, Mexicans in North American action films were typically maids, drug dealers, or prison inmates. Even if the Cisco Kid was a friend of yours, you handled a dust cloth or a Mac-10 if you lasted in Hollywood longer than a New York minuto. But when El Mariachi crossed the border in 1992, things changed. Granted, it still involved a drug lord in a shoot-em-up, bang-bang, but this time the good guy was a Mexican. Austin-based Rodriguez made El Mariachi for a fistful of pesos and a little help from his friends. He wrote, directed, coproduced, edited, and operated the camera. Plus, he assembled a cast that had never acted before to work por nada. All for a paltry $7,000, a milagro without a beanfield war.
Desperado continues the outrageous action adventure. Working with a much bigger budget, Rodriguez returns the nameless mariachi to nonstop action. Again thrust into a world he never made, the hero takes his guitar-case arsenal deep into the criminal labyrinth of Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida), el gran chingon of the Mexican drug lords. With an amigo (Steve Buscemi) and a beautiful bookstore owner (Salma Hayek), el mariachi confronts an outrageous cast along the way, including a bartender (Cheech Marin), a drug deal pick-up guy (Quentin Tarantino), and the original mariachi (coproducer Carlos Gallardo) as a new-found compa’. Antonio Banderas has the lead this time, and if he’s not quite up to the challenge, it’s probably because he’s Spanish, not Mexican, a distinction not lost by anyone raised on what the popular media now calls “ethnic food.” That said, Desperado is not to be missed. Using intelligence, romance, and humor–as well as plenty of explosive, surreal violence–Rodriguez again showcases the timeless struggle between the forces of darkness and light. And, in the process, he’s recasting the mold for the contemporary action hero–kids now argue about who gets to play the Mexican.