#554) El Mariachi (1992)
OR “Guitar Hero”
Directed & Written by Robert Rodriguez
Class of 2011
The Plot: A man known simply as El Mariachi (Carlos Gallardo) arrives in the border town of Ciudad Acuña, looking for work as a guitar player. After checking into a hotel, he is mistaken for a criminal (known for carrying a guitar case full of weapons) and chased by some local thugs. El Mariachi takes refuge in a local bar and befriends its owner Dominó (Consuelo Gómez), who it turns out is connected to Moco (Peter Marquardt), the drug lord who the thugs work for. There’s plenty of action and mistaken identity in this thriller from Robert Rodriguez.
Why It Matters: The NFR cites “El Mariachi” as one of the films that “helped usher in the independent movie boom of the early 1990s.” Rodriguez’s creativity on a budget is praised, as is his “energetic, highly entertaining” movie.
But Does It Really?: Maybe it’s the amount of older movies I have to watch for this blog, but it was such a relief to watch something different. With its inventive storytelling and impressive visuals, “El Mariachi” perfectly encapsulates the low-budget indie scene that the NFR has started to recognize in the last few years. Robert Rodriguez uses his budget constraints as a positive, creating a frenetic, riveting action movie that keeps the pace going all through its brisk 81-minute runtime. A yes for “El Mariachi” for its representation of Rodriguez and ’90s indie movies, its sheer entertainment value, and as always, bonus points for being short.
Everybody Gets One: Born in San Antonio, Texas, Robert Rodriguez became interested in film at age 11 when his father bought an early VCR that came with a camera. After a series of successful shorts, Rodriguez began production on “El Mariachi”, which he considered a “practice” film for a bigger movie. As with many of his later films, Rodriguez wore many hats during production: director, writer, cinematographer, camera operator, editor, etc. He refers to this style of solo filmmaking as “Mariachi-style”.
Wow, That’s Dated: “El Mariachi” has that synthesizer score/film by way of video aesthetic that thrived in the early ’90s. And thanks to this movie I get to play one of my favorite early ’90s games: Cordless Landline or Cellular Phone?
Title Track: Forgive my ignorance: I didn’t realize mariachi is also used to describe a singular person in a mariachi band, or someone who plays mariachi music. Columbia opted not to translate the title because they figured people wouldn’t want to see an action movie called “The Guitar Player”.
Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “El Mariachi”, but the film won its share of festival prizes, as well as the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. Robert Rodriguez was nominated for Best Director, but lost to Robert Altman for “Short Cuts”.
- “El Mariachi” was made on a budget of $7,000 (most of which went to film processing). Rodriguez’s main approach to keeping a low-budget was frequent cost-cutting. Among his examples: most scenes were shot in only one take, desk lamps were used for lighting, and a wheelchair was used for a dolly.
- For the record, I watched the English dubbed version, which wasn’t too distracting (considering the Spanish-speaking version is dubbed too). I also appreciated how much common Spanish was kept in, because we all know what “por favor” means.
- In addition to playing El Mariachi, Carlos Gallardo was this movie’s co-producer. He does well in the lead, but how charming can you be when you have the same haircut as ’80s-era Howie Mandel?
- One of my notes simply reads “God, this is good”. Even on a shoestring budget Rodriguez knows how to tell a good story, aided by shrewd cinematography and a restraint on dialogue.
- I don’t like endorsing anything with excessive gunplay, but man are those some good action sequences. El Mariachi’s first escape from Moco’s thugs is an exciting sequence, although Mariachi pulls off the best stunt thanks in part to everyone’s terrible aim. Like, he’s a foot in front of them and they still miss. ¡Anda ya!
- During this viewing I wondered how much of this film’s budget was spent on squibs. Turns out, not a lot. The “squibs” were actually condoms filled with fake blood over weightlifting belts. Well done.
- The chemistry between El Mariachi and Dominó is a variation of “He’s a jerk and she’s okay with it” called “He confessed to a murder and she’s okay with it”. Actor Consuelo Gómez only made one other movie after “El Mariachi”, briefly reprising her role of Dominó in “Desperado”.
- Another nice bit of filmmaking, the constant use of close-ups. It helps give us the intense, disorienting feeling El Mariachi has as he stumbles into each new situation not fully aware of what is happening. Or maybe it’s just another cost-cutting measure. Either way, it works.
- Something about Peter Marquardt’s performance struck me as off, and it turns out that Marquardt didn’t speak a word of Spanish, and had to learn his lines phonetically. That explains why he feels more stilted than the other characters.
- I’ll be honest: I didn’t take a lot of notes for this movie, mainly because I was enjoying it so much. I spend so much time watching increasingly problematic classics and long forgotten relics it was nice to watch a (relatively) modern action movie by someone who clearly loves movies. I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t seen any of Robert Rodriguez’s other movies, and “El Mariachi” got me excited to see the rest of his filmography.
- Rodriguez made “El Mariachi” with the intention of releasing it on video, but after several video distributors rejected it, Rodriguez sent a trailer to theatrical distribution companies. Columbia Pictures purchased the film, and spent over 200 times the film’s budget on post-production and marketing. Today, “El Mariachi” holds the Guinness World Record as the lowest-budgeted film to gross $1 million at the box office.
- “El Mariachi” is the first in Robert Rodriguez’s “Mariachi Trilogy”. 1995’s “Desperado” saw Antonio Banderas replacing Carlos Gallardo as El Mariachi, and Rodriguez’s concluded his trilogy with 2003’s “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”.
- After “El Mariachi”, Robert Rodriguez successfully crossed over to mainstream filmmaking. Later films include “Sin City”, the “Spy Kids” trilogy, that Boba Fett spin-off we’re getting on Disney+, and a movie we won’t see until 2115.
- 2014 brought us a TV series based on “El Mariachi”, in which another young mariachi is mistaken for another criminal and imprisoned. He escapes, and vows to find the real criminal. Kind of a modern-day “Fugitive”, I guess.
- And finally, Robert Rodriguez may be the only filmmaker on the NFR with their own cable channel: El Rey Network. Check your local listings.
Further Reading: Rodriguez recounted his beginnings as a filmmaker and the making of “El Mariachi” in his book “Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player“.