El Mariachi (1992)

El Mariachi was shot for somewhere in the neighborhood of $7,000. As a result, almost all praise about it is comparative, and despite it being quite fun, there’s always the asterisk that reads that it’s good “for its budget.” Whether or not that’s true praise or just enjoying seeing a solid action film given how cheaply it was made, I’m not sure. But solid it remains.

The film begins with a man named Azul (Reinol Martinez) killing a bunch of people who were sent to kill him. There’s a man named Moco (Peter Marquardt) who was the man who sent the hitmen, but he’s back at his home, only accessible by phone call. Azul and Moco talk a bit, before Azul tells him that he’s going to kill him, just like he killed those other men. At this point, I expected a revenge film, and that the reason that Azul is so mad, and why Moco wants Azul dead would be fleshed out through their dialogue and/or flashbacks.

I was wrong. It turns out, neither of these characters is our lead. He’s a wandering mariachi (Carlos Gallardo), who stops into a small town in hopes to find work. He carries his guitar case, goes from bar to bar and hopes that someone will hire him. He’s unsuccessful, but I think that’s due to him not trying all that hard. At one point, we hear him play and sing, and it’s quite good. He never shows potential employers what he has to offer them, which I think was a misstep on his behalf.

Azul turns up, and we learn that most of the town is employed by Moco. Since Azul wants revenge, he shoots up one of the numerous bars in town. He keeps his weapons, conveniently, in a guitar case. Yes, it looks exactly like the one that our mariachi carries. Oh, and their outfits are very similar too, as they both wear black pants and a black coat. You probably know where this is going.

If you don’t, I’ll fill you in. The mariachi is mistaken for the killer, so he’s hunted down instead, while Azul just kind of disappears for a while. The two alternate a bit, there’s a humorous dialogue exchange between Moco and Azul regarding the number of people who have been slain, and there are a bunch of action scenes after the main plot gets going. All in all, it’s a lot of fun.

But the kicker is that El Mariachi was made for only $7,000, and as a result, it’s bound to get a lot of praise because a few cheap tricks kept the costs down and still allowed it to look quite good and be pretty entertaining. Is it great in my eyes? No, I don’t think so. But it’s a great example of how a smart, passionate director can create something for what most Hollywood productions would be fine just tossing out to get their budget to a round number.

El Mariachi ends up being more or less a pure action film. The action scenes are somewhat creative, never boring, and, once again, given the budget, very well-crafted. There’s a b-movie feel in terms of how the blood works (if you get shot, blood will fly out of the wound) and considering there’s not much time spent with silly things like a plot or character development, you basically get action scene after action scene.

Unfortunately — and yes, I believe this goes for action films too — plot and character development are important. If I don’t care about the people involved in the shootouts or chase sequences, then I won’t become involved in them. I’ll appreciate that there is some artistry happening in terms of how they’re created, but in terms of providing me an unforgettable experience, you’ll fall short. That’s what happens here, as there wasn’t anything driving these scenes apart from a very loose premise that gives us minimum reason for things to occur.

I say this, but I’m actually overstating how the plot is advanced. It would be so simple for the mariachi to avoid all of these action scenes. All he would have to do is change clothes. He takes off his jacket at one point, and he walks right by the people who were just shooting at him. Why he doesn’t do this after he realizes that the hitmen have the wrong person isn’t explained, and even once he finds a place to hide, he decides to venture once more into town just to get shot at.

There’s also the argument that we only appreciate the action scenes as much as we do because of the low budget. There’s that asterisk again. We sit and watch them, and then we look at the budget, and we wonder why Hollywood productions can’t consistently give us this type of quality, at the very least. Millions of dollars more are spent with sub-par action, and this is a film that shows us you don’t need to spend that type of cash to put out great entertainment. We get some high quality stuff here, although because our expectations are somewhat lowered, it might just seem that way. Regardless, you still get a ton of exhilarating moments scattered throughout, budget notwithstanding.

El Mariachi is a film that was made for such a cheap amount that it’s hard to hate it even if it wasn’t all that good. Thankfully, it’s a fun action film that will give you a great deal of entertainment, even if characters and a real plot are forgotten about. Maybe this was a situation where you could only have one of the three, and since the most enthralling by itself is pure action, that’s what was chosen. Whether that’s the case or not, this is a film that’s a ball to watch.

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