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‘El Mariachi’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 03, 1993


Robert Rodriguez
Carlos Gallardo;
Consuelo Gomez;
Jaime de Hoyos;
Peter Marquardt;
Reinol Martinez

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There are moments in "El Mariachi" that may take you back to your earliest experiences as a moviegoer. Directed by 24-year-old first-time filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, this brilliantly naive, low-budget shoot-'em-up presents every action as if it were brand spanking new.

Watching it, you feel as if Rodriguez had never seen any other movies before he made this one; that he believes he was the first to address the idea of, say, a wrongly accused man being chased down a hot, crowded Mexican street by four men with guns. And that, given no earlier models to work from, he had to invent the vocabulary of the chase, right there on the spot. He's like D.W. Griffith, an inventor-pioneer ad-libbing the complete language of film, off the cuff, for the very first time.

That's how this enormously entertaining example of street haiku makes you feel -- like your mind's eye was fresh and inexperienced. The picture isn't a classic or anything like that. On the one hand, it's too basic, too crude to be much more than a curiosity. On the other, it's too conceptual, too concentrated, to be pigeonholed as the work of a primitive novice.

"El Mariachi" is bare-bones filmmaking; shot on a budget of $7,000, it's the motion picture equivalent of three-chord garage rock. In it, Rodriguez brushes the dust off the standard techniques of the action genre and, trimming off all superfluous frills (like character development, for example), demonstrates just how clunky and overimposing our top-dollar big-studio crime thrillers have become.

Motivated by extreme poverty, Rodriguez has boiled the art of filmmaking down to its visceral, kinetic essence. In "El Mariachi" everything is expressed in terms of action, pure and simple. Two strangers come to town, both dressed identically and both carrying a guitar case. One of the men is an assassin and one is a real mariachi. The town is controlled by the man the assassin was sent to kill, but because his bodyguards mistake the real mariachi for the fake one, the streets are turned into a bloody battlefield from which no one -- not even the innocent mariachi hero -- emerges untouched.

Though the story is elementary, the spirited, muscular sensibility behind its telling is not. Like in the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, the macho landscape of "El Mariachi" is so spare and tough that it becomes mythic. But if Leone's existential Westerns revealed pretentions to greater significance and depth, Rodriguez remains true to his modest role as a storyteller with no concern other than an eagerness to please.

Rodriguez isn't interested in ideas or myths. He is interested in flux and movement and volume and pace, much like Steven Spielberg was in the early days of "Duel." And so that's what we pay attention to in "El Mariachi" -- not to substance and, surprisingly, not to style either, but the mechanics.

The source of fun in "El Mariachi" isn't in Rodriguez's ability to define and delineate character. (The people in his film are archetypes: good guys or bad guys, like in professional wrestling.) It's in his ability to go from zero to 90 in a few brisk narrative strides, in his cornering skills and his ability to downshift on a dime into lower emotional gears. In part, this is because his story demands so little attention; in part, because there aren't any performances to speak of from the actors; and in part because Rodriguez approaches the camera as a child would a new toy.

By concentrating on the basics -- on, say, the simple action of one man chasing another -- Rodriguez hooks us into a syntax of moviemaking as fundamental to the medium as the shot of a train racing down the track toward a terrified maiden back in the early silents.

Watching his film, you can feel the sheer joy that went into its creation. Francois Truffaut once quoted Jerry Lewis as saying that he loved working with film so much, simply loved touching it and holding it in his hands, that at times he felt like shoving it into his mouth and chomping down hard on it with his teeth. This kind of love, Truffaut said, was the one thing a filmmaker must possess if he deserves to be called great. This requirement, at the very least, Robert Rodriguez fills, and then some.

"El Mariachi" is rated R for violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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