The bad guys have a lot of guns. So does the good guy. The bad guys outnumber the good guy, but the good guy is a better shot. Bang, bang, you’re dead. In Desperado, the cheerfully meaningless new action movie from Robert Rodriguez, Antonio Banderas arrives in town with a guitar case crammed with instruments of death. Flashbacks tell us that Banderas was once a mariachi who ran afoul of criminals who mistook him for an escaped convict; though this film is a self-contained story, it’s a sequel to Rodriguez’ 1993 El Mariachi, the famous $7,000 little-movie-that-could, starring Carlos Gallardo as the hero. Taking over the role, Banderas has been given back the fingers blown off at the end of the original; now he just has a bullet wound preventing him from playing the guitar. It does not, however, dissuade him from pulling the trigger. Repeatedly.
Desperado was made for $7 million, a three-zero upgrade of the original budget but still a pittance by today’s Hollywood standards, and needless to say, it has more bang for the buck than any other movie this summer. Rodriguez is the first to admit he isn’t much of a screenwriter, but as a director he has a kinetic genius that makes up for his narrative obviousness. When Banderas is pinned to the floor by a bad guy, he drives his feet up into the pachuco‘s chest and launches him into the air, then empties his guns into the guy, prolonging his flight. Banderas dispatches another guy by shooting a ceiling fan, which crashes down onto the guy’s head; in a later shot, the still-whirring fan keeps smacking the unconscious guy in the face. Within Rodriguez’ pulp formula stories are little pockets of ingenuity.
On the evidence of his two features to date (excluding his enjoyable made-for-cable J.D. homage Roadracers, which suggests a gift for comedy), Rodriguez, unlike his contemporary and friend Quentin Tarantino, isn’t especially interested in toying with the narrative and themes of action cinema — he’s happy enough just working in the genre, and his happiness is infectious. (Try to think of any other action film of the last five years that had any lift or sense of play.) Rodriguez’ films are all about proving something: El Mariachi proved that a 24-year-old with no crew could make an exciting and professional-looking movie for four digits, and this movie proves he can piss with the big dogs while staying within the territory he’s marked for himself.
Desperado is resolutely derivative but also breathlessly athletic and violently witty. If you’re attuned to it, you won’t much mind the plot, which just goes from point A to point B. Playing the battle-scarred hunk, Banderas could have given a sullen, blank performance, but he comes across as soulful and gentle in almost any role, and he’s worth whatever Rodriguez didn’t spend on squibs and explosions. Steve Buscemi (playing a barfly called, hilariously, Buscemi) and Cheech Marin are terrific in their few scenes; Quentin, fast becoming the Michael Caine of indie cinema, tells an endless piss joke and gets blown away. Will someone please advise this man to stay behind the camera?