A few years ago, a young film student named Robert Rodriguez made a very big splash for a very little amount of money. The film was "El Mariachi," which, or so publicity insisted, cost $7,000 and was full of amazing grace and violence as it chronicled the adventures of an innocent Mexican musician who ran afoul of a drug mob. The film, picked up by Columbia, became an art house success and put Rodriguez on the map.
Now, he offers his first big studio film, "Desperado."
Check that map: He's not on it any more.
This time it cost $7 million, or 1,000 times what the first one cost. But . . . it's the same movie! And what seemed a miracle of low-budget ingenuity and pure talent now seems, at $7 million, completely pointless. It's got a genuine movie star who's quite good, but . . . so what?
"Desperado" is all kinetic energy and fancy camera moves as syncopated by an editing rhythm somewhere between a canter and a gallop that occasionally approaches sheer mayhem. But as Yeats once said (I guarantee you this will be the only review of "Desperado" that quotes Yeats!), when men of action lose faith, they believe only in action. That's true of directors of action too: "Desperado" is action and almost nothing else.
There appear to be vapors of narrative blowing through it, not that anyone without a spectrometer would notice. Antonio Banderas, impressively athletic and vigorous, plays the Mariachi who is now on a mission of vengeance against the drug cartel that blew his girlfriend away.
His methods are not subtle: He kicks into the sleazy bars that double as narco factories and distribution centers, opens his guitar case, and pulls out all the known guns in the world, except for the guns in the pockets of the men already in the bar.
Much carnage ensues, but not in the realistic sense: Rather, Rodriguez has spent entirely too much of his youth in lonely downtown bijoux watching Hong Kong gangster films, and the shootout sequences show all the hallmarks of high Woo and low Lam.
Banderas dives, sprawls and flies while shooting, a veritable ballroom dancer with a couple of 9-millimeters in his paws, never losing balance or grace or popping a sweat. He looks like Fred Astaire on steroids and amphetamines. And, of course, he is himself never hit by the counter-torrents of lead launched in his direction.
But Rodriguez is so pleased with his larger budget that he never thinks rigorously about the things that Hong Kong meisters John Woo and Ringo Lam do instinctively. He is incapable of subtly varying the textures and rhythms of the gunfights so that they build. They're all the same, and they're never expressive of character and ideas; they're only sheer, repetitive spectacle. These gunfights tell us nothing about their participants and their survivors.
The few narrative wrinkles hardly constitute revelation: The nameless Mariachi becomes involved with a beautiful bookstore owner (Salma Hayek), and the two make comely icons, especially in a shot that shows them fleeing a scene in slow-motion against a blast of napalm unfolding like a tulip in the summer sun. But they have virtually nothing to say to each other because they remain beautiful blanks throughout the film.
Quentin Tarantino makes a brief, pointless appearance, to tell a dirty joke and catch a bullet in the head; Cheech Marin also catches a bullet, but he never gets to tell a joke; Steve Buscemi is another guest corpse. The Spanish actor Joaquim de Almeida, so vivid in "Clear and Present Danger," diminishes himself as the drug lord.
"Desperado" turns out to be of utterly no consequence; it's so lightweight, there's no air there.
Starring Antonio Banderas
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Released by Columbia