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'El Mariachi' proves it takes more than money to make a fine film


"El Mariachi" is already famous for being better than at least a hundred films that cost at least a hundred times as much to make, proving how much bang for the buck can be gotten when talent is added and studio and union politics are subtracted from the equation. It cost $7,000 and you can't evenget a very good car for $ 7,000! But let's not obsess on the figure. Robert Rodriguez certainly didn't; he was a University of Texas student who, with a rented 16mm camera, decided to wander into Mexico, throw together a fast, crude shoot-'em-up, which he cynically hoped to offer to Spanish-language video. He ended up with an office and a deal at Columbia. I guess nobody told him it was impossible.

His film doesn't really transcend its budgetary limitations but it doesn't have to. It's like a lot of other low-budget hell-raisers that are so cinematically pure and driven, they don't need elaborate production. Its rawness, its sense of squalor and unaffected, art-directionless reality amplify rather than diminish its impact. The only thing Rodriguez had was access to a batch of guns and his own boundless optimism. The story he came up with reflected both.

A drug kingpin decides to kill a former partner in prison and fails. The partner, a thug named Azul, swears vengeance, escapes the prison (his sentence appears to have been ceremonial rather than meaningful anyway), loads a batch of nasty-looking machine pistols into a guitar case, throws on a black vest and heads into a sleazy border town.

At the same moment, another hombre, also dressed in black, heads into town. In his guitar case, alas, is only a guitar. In his heart is a song, on his lips a smile, in his eyes twinkles. He's a roving vagabond, a real mariachi player. Thus begins an almost anarchistic improvisation on the themes of mistaken identities and near-misses, with poor Carlos Gallardo continually stepping into ambushes that he miraculously survives. Meanwhile the real gunman (the very scary Reinol Martinez) keeps ambushing his enemies.

In truth, there's some racism in the film: It uncomfortably embodies Sam Peckinpah's view of Mexico as a vast brothel and violent slum, where guns may be drawn and fired at any time without anybody noticing.

Still, Rodriguez has drop-dead natural talent. Without a twitch of self-awareness, he slings together truly unbelievable chases and shootouts and stunts, achieving a visceral and kinetic force all but vanished from bigger-budget productions. He's a true enfant terrible, a rude country bumpkin in whose casual hands images become melodies. He's a much more fluent director than either Tim Burton (the "Batman" guy) or Kenneth Branagh (the Shakespeare guy). He has incredible instincts: when to cut, where to place the camera, how to knit together complex skeins of images to suggest incredible vitality.

But now he faces an intriguing dilemma: He's completely in the studio game. Will it ruin him or liberate him? Stay tuned. It's going to be interesting.

"El Mariachi"

Starring Carlos Gallardo and Consuelo Gomez

Directed by Robert Rodriguez

Released by Columbia

Rated R

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