Genre: Action Running Time: 1 hr. 44 min.
Release Date: August 25th, 1995 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Robert Rodriguez Actors: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Joaquim de Almeida, Cheech Marin, Steve Buscemi, Carlos Gomez, Quentin Tarantino, Danny Trejo
wide-eyed stranger (Steve Buscemi) – seemingly far out of his element – strolls into the Tarasco bar, orders a beer (from bartender Cheech Marin), and begins telling a tale of a tall, dark Mexican, toting a guitar case full of weaponry. A few towns over, a relentless, bloodbath showdown at a comparable establishment left only the stranger alive – to warn this new location of the looming danger. As he recounts his story, flashback shots humorously demonstrate the manner in which shadows always seem to consume the Mexican’s visage and how his massive hand-cannons launch targets into the air and across the room with explosive fury, like something out of a cartoon. Amusingly, the exaggerated stunts and action sequences are harbingers of similarly stylized adventures to come, where bullets are unlimited, slow-motion mayhem frequent, and incendiary trouble entertainingly prevalent.
The Mexican (Antonio Banderas) is a talented mariachi guitarist with a sordid past, involving plenty of gangsters, a murdered lover, a hole through his hand, and an unyielding mission of revenge against mob boss Cesar Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida). He’s even more skilled when it comes to killing, demonstrating his capabilities with the swift dispatching of everyone at Tarasco. After he absorbs a couple of bullets while leaving the bar, he’s nursed back to health by concerned bystander and bookstore owner Carolina (Salma Hayek). But even before he has regained his strength, he’s already returned to his mission of scouring the town for information on Bucho’s whereabouts.
Much of the violence is choreographed like an intricate dance, with characters lunging over countertops or flying through the air in gravity-defying fashion (quite reminiscent of the works of John Woo). Humor is always present in these sequences, as assassins and thugs engage in spontaneously-empty-gun duels and ambushes and chases through crowded streets, where randomly traded expressions alert participants and dictate outcomes. Miscommunications among hired hitmen and heroic interferences in brawls (with a guitar always in hand) also lead to comical mishaps. Even the gratuitous sex scene funnily segues into a creative gunfight.
Like “Die Hard,” “Desperado’s” lone gunner soaks up plenty of abuse and bleeds regularly, but he also fends off slugs with nothing more than a determined grimace. The excessive dialogue, full of slang that doesn’t match the setting, can’t help but recall “Pulp Fiction,” which is also tied into the brief appearance by Quentin Tarantino as a pick-up guy who does little more than spout a wordy, dirty joke. A hint of James Bond enters the picture, with a surplus of heavy artillery and armored vehicles, hidden projectiles inside modified musical instruments, and a hierarchy of colorful henchmen in desperate need of a bumping-off (the most memorable of which is Danny Trejo as Navajas). And the finale screams of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” though here it proves disappointingly anticlimactic (and unrealistic) instead of artistic, even if a standard visualization would have been repetitive.
“Desperado” is a film brimming with innovative and whimsical gunplay and action arrangements, built up through fitting music, sharp camerawork, and a unique, semi-Spaghetti Western setting. But despite many scenes bordering on genius, the abundance of snazzy stunts and melees don’t add up to a genuinely engaging plot. It’s as if director Robert Rodriguez merely stitched together every wild combat scenario he could muster, focusing on style, gusto, flamboyance, and a high body count over affective material. The bits that work are grandly enjoyable, but the project as a whole lacks the gravity necessary to match the genre’s better entries.
– Mike Massie