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*Also starring: Salma Hayek, Joaquim De Almeida, Cheech Marin, Carlos Gomez, Quentin Tarantino, Guillermo Navarro, Angel Aviles, Danny Trejo

Review by Dragan Antulov
2 stars out of 4

In the past decade many non-American or independent directors came to Hollywood and thus allowed critics to observe an interesting phenomenon. It seems that the quality of their work decreases proportionally to their proximity to Hollywood mainstream and large budgets. The most telling example of this phenomenon could be found in the career of Robert Rodriguez. In 1992 he rose to fame with EL MARIACHI, debut film made with incredibly low budget of 7000 US$. Three years later, while shooting DESPERADO for Columbia Pictures, he had thousand times larger budget at his disposal.

DESPERADO has the same title protagonist as Rodriguez's first film. El Mariachi (played by Antonio Banderas) is former musician turned vigilante after having his lover killed and his hand disfigured by drug dealers. Now he carries guns in his guitar case and roams around Northern Mexico killing drug lords and their henchmen, becoming some sort of urban legend in the process. His latest target is cruel Bucho (played by Joaquin de Almeida) and in his struggle he receives help from an American friend Buscemi (played by Steven Buscemi). Yet the most important assistance would be Caroline (played by Selma Hayek), beautiful bookstore owner whose shop is actually a drop station in Bucho's drug-trafficking scheme.

Without having to worry about mundane little things like budget any more, Rodriguez approached DESPERADO with the enthusiasm of a child in the candy store. This enthusiasm is reflected in large amount of pyrotechnics and legions of stuntmen employed in numerous scenes of bloody shootouts. Those scenes are directed with great deal of talent and in many ways they pay homage to the work of action-oriented directors like Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and John Woo. But the most notable difference between two films is in casting. This time Rodriguez didn't have to work with unknowns and amateurs - characters are played by respected actors and rising Hollywood stars. Popular Mexican actress Selma Hayek appears in her first major Hollywood role (best remembered for rather steamy love-making scene), while Rodriguez uses casting as an opportunity to pay homage to Quentin Tarantino, man who was, like himself, promising director of 1990s - Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino appears in small (and rather annoying cameo), while Tarantino's actor Steve Buscemi (whose character was written specifically with him in mind) plays somewhat larger role.

However, the same larger budget, while making DESPERADO more spectacular than EL MARIACHI, also shows some flaws of Rodriguez as filmmaker and the unavoidable comparisons between two titles would probably be in favour of earlier film. The most noticeable difference between two films is in casting of protagonist. Spanish actor Antonio Banderas in his first major Hollywood role is undoubtedly better actor and possesses more charisma than Carlos Gallardo (who appears in small cameo as El Mariachi's right hand man) yet his presence alone is enough to destroy the magic. With Gallardo viewers could have sympathised with El Mariachi because he looked like an ordinary man. Banderas, under the tone of make-up, simply can't be taken seriously. The script, which used the weakest segment of EL MARIACHI, is even weaker now. Rodriguez simply didn't make up his mind whether to shoot remake or sequel to EL MARIACHI. Many characters and situations are repetitive and the film is overlong, and at times even boring. However, DESPERADO has enough black Tarantinoesque humour and superb action to be quite entertaining experience.

Copyright 2002 Dragan Antulov

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