Robert Rodriguez is known for various franchises such as his recent Danny Trejo led saga of Machete (2010) and Machete Kills (2013). His films have contributed over two hundred million dollars to his home community in Austin, Texas where his Trouble Maker Studios is established. Though he has always been a presence in the R-rated film market, Rodriguez is also familiar to younger audiences through his Spy Kids films. However, as established in pop culture as he may be now, the film chronicles that acted as a tent pole for his fame are that of El Mariachi (1992), Desperado (1995), and Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2004). The weirdest, and probably the most enchanting thing about the El Mariachi trilogy is that it's hardly a stable saga. It's a narrative and technical journey where the audience watches not only El Mariachi grow as a character, but also Rodriguez grow as a director and creative pioneer.
Rodriguez started filming as a child on his own cameras, creating illustrative shorts that reflected his director’s eye along with the creative implementations befitting only of a cartoonist. He attended the College of Communications of the University of Texas to further expand his knowledge for the craft. It was there that Rodriguez’s first full length film, El Mariachi, was designed as a throw away to acquaint the young director with movie making on a higher scale. With plans of placing the film on the Mexican video market and moving on to bigger, better things, the then blooming Rodriguez created the action film with a minuscule budget of $7,000. As a young director with few sponsors to speak of, Rodriguez earned much of his film's budget by selling his time and body to an experimental trial where he would earn monetary compensation as a guinea pig for a then in-the-works drug. While under surveillance in the drug facility, Rodriguez met almost the entirety of what would become the cast for his low-budget action flick. When the trial was concluded, the group of rag-tags left Texas and headed for Mexico where they could film El Mariachi using various pieces of friends’ homes, vehicles, work-places and so on as the props and setting for the throwaway.
Since Rodriguez had nothing to lose, he used the opportunity to try something (then) different from the usual low market action film. El Mariachi focuses on a guitar player dealing with a violent case of mistaken identity. After entering a town with nothing to his name but a guitar and a few dollars (which isn’t a massively dissimilar parallel to Rodriguez entering the film world), our nameless hero and title character of whom I will refer to as El throughout this article searches the town for work only to find that his simple ways of singing and playing hold no weight in the town’s bars. When he enters the first bar, he is chastised for daring to even ask for work. The bartender shows El his “mariachi band”, one man on a synthesizer who creates a comically artificial mariachi song by pressing down on the keyboard to an obviously electronic mariachi band. With each press of the key, the keyboard speakers call out, “Hey! Hey! Ha! Hey!” The “mariachi” ends the song with a flourishing motion of his hands and takes a seat, thus leading the bartender to say, all while El watches in a state of disorientation, “Why pay one guitar player when I can pay one man and have a full group of mariachis?” El leaves the bar with what’s left of his pride and heads to the only other bar within the small town. It's a story about a newbie entering an industry that laughs at small budget one-man shows to better push the presence of technology that eliminates the humanity of a time-trialed art. Gee, I wonder what Rodriguez was implying.
As El continues on his simple journey, a fugitive escapes from prison and heads into the same town to take revenge on the cartel leader, Moco, who stabbed him in the back. The man dresses in all black and carries a guitar case just like our humble hero; only the difference between himself and El is that this man’s case is filled with weapons. The man, ironically named Azul, goes into the very same bar that El has just left and kills the men inside. In a film set in rural Mexico during the early nineties, there are no photographs to tell El and Azul apart and only cartel boss Moco knows what Azul’s face looks like. The cartel goes on a man hunt within the city to find Azul and, in turn, attack El. When El defends himself he kills several men in the process. With nowhere left to return, he goes back to a bar he visited before, run by a beautiful woman named Domino who is the object of Moco’s affections. After El asks for somewhere to lay low while the men search the city, Domino lets him into her bedroom to rest.
While El is resting Azul shows up at Domino’s bar and accidentally takes El’s guitar case, leaving his case of weapons behind with the unknowing mariachi. As the plot progresses the violence intensifies and leaks into El’s dreams. Within the franchise, El’s nightmares in the first film are the first moments where we see Rodriguez’s iconic boy in the yellow shirt. The boy in the yellow shirt (and it’s important to articulate that yellow shirt because it’s always a yellow shirt) becomes a character that transcends the franchise despite the fact that the time spanned among the films is that of over ten years. In El Mariachi, the boy in the yellow shirt is seen dribbling a ball before rolling it over to El’s dream self. As the ball rolls closer it turns into the severed head of a man El killed earlier. These nightmares act in the story before El ever touches a weapon and we see a violent dream sequence just before the El’s first shootout. The pressing of El’s pre-disposition to violence is there from the very beginning and this boy in the yellow shirt pulls him further and further into it. As the violence in El’s life increases over the course of the films, so does the boy’s proximity of importance to the plot.
The severed head acts as a foreshadowing for the next shootout where Domino is taken by Azul to Moco’s ranch. Moco enters into a fit of rage that Domino has chosen El over himself and he kills Domino and Azul. El stumbles upon the scene in horror only to have his hand shot through by Moco. With his a hole through his hand, El can’t possibly be the mariachi he dreamed of becoming but, as he later states in Desperado, “It’s easier to pull the trigger than play guitar—easier to destroy than to create.” El picks up Azul’s gun and kills Moco. Then he kills all of his men. In typical action movie cheesy flare, the film ends with El riding into the sunset on a motorcycle with a bionic hand and a thirst for revenge. (It was the 90’s, okay? And it was always Robert Rodriguez. Let him have his fun.)
However, the ending of the film does not line up with Desperado, the semi-sequel semi-remake of El Mariachi. El has inexplicably transformed from Carlos Gallardo into Antonio Banderas. (This is not a negative by the way.) Gone away are the crew made up of friends and family—all who worked for free with the exception of Domino’s actress who worked for a small price of $225. Robert Rodriguez’s garnered fame after the widely appraised release of El Mariachi allowed him to expand as a creator. Rodriguez created a film in El Mariachi that directly corresponded to his life as a film maker. It was an off-kilter film that nobody expected much from. El Mariachi served as a dark horse that led Rodriguez into various film festivals and under the brightness of a light of acclaim. He was the kid from Texas with a new vision and a definite talent and it’s no wonder that friend Quentin Tarantino took to making a cameo in Desperado (and later a starring role in Rodriguez’s From Dusk til Dawn, which Tarantino wrote) two years after El Mariachi’s flourishing premiere.
Desperado begins with a scene in a bar. Much like in El Mariachi, we are not introduced to El first, but rather what people assume him to be. In the first film of the franchise we meet Azul first, the killer with the guitar case full of guns. Now El is that killer and we hear about him through the mouth of a story teller in a bar. Much like an old world scribe, this story teller paints a fantastical story of El walking into a bar, a figure of darkness. “He was dark too, and I don’t mean dark skinned. No. This was different. It was like he was always walking in his shadow. Every time he walked towards the light, just when you thought his face was about to be revealed—it wasn’t.”
El is portrayed as a shadow of vengeance, darkened by the tragedy in the first film. The story teller conveys a violent shootout, where no person within the dirty, cartel-financed bar is spared. El is only said to speak one thing while in the bar, now a western figure head of the man who speaks less with his mouth and more with his gun. El speaks the name “Bucho”—the name of the cartel boss he seeks to kill. After those in the bar hear El is out for Bucho’s blood, they immediately stiffen. They’re Bucho’s men too. The story teller leaves, a pep in his step, and then we are introduced to El.
El is not seen within his own medium with a gun. No. The first sight of El Mariachi as told by El Mariachi is as a man with a guitar in hand. Happy, living his dream as the mariachi in a beautiful restaurant just like his father had been and his father before his father had been as well. When the song concludes, the crowd cheers. This can’t be our legend—our killer—the sequence leads us to believe. This is no desperado. He’s a guitar player. However, the entire bar stills and the crowd becomes frozen like robots. One man applauds over the stillness and steps forward. El’s face grows horrified at the sight of Moco. Within a quick edit we are taken to El over the body of Domino and then El Mariachi is shot through the hand just as our story teller knocks on the door of the motel room he awakes in.
Continuity is sacrificed for Rodriguez’s attempt at a more mainstream action film. El no longer has a bionic hand, simply a palm decorated by a long, ugly scar. It moves well enough to shoot and aim but not enough to play guitar. Desperado was by no means an expensive film, by the standards of action films it was still increasingly less than others in its niche. Rodriguez made use of his time and actors skillfully and used home video cameras to run through action sequences before the day of shooting. With more familiarity with the setting and the angles needed, Rodriguez was able to cut down shooting time exponentially. Rodriguez makes it very clear that cheap and quick is his way of not only filming, but also telling stories. The cartoon-esque sequences still hold the weight that they did in El Mariachi but now with more expensive toys. While in El Mariachi, El is seen sliding down a telephone wire with a chain into the back of a truck, El mirrors that same cartoonish action in Desperado. He moves unlike other film avengers, with the grace of a dancer, adding to the humor of his character. Physical humor runs rampant in Desperado with violent irony. “You’re going to get me killed,” the story teller says to El just before he is murdered by a knife to the chest. El shoots a ceiling fan above a cartel henchman to have it fall on the man, complete with a looney tunes thud!, and continue spinning in another show of dark humor. Did you forget Rodriguez was originally a cartoonist?
Rodriguez addresses the love story once more as El falls in love with Salma Hayek’s character, Carolina. Much like Domino in El Mariachi, Carolina is also a woman of the cartel boss. In many ways, the story is a complete mirroring of El Mariachi, although Rodriguez refuses to stick to any one convention and adds a fork in the road during the peak of the conventional action plot. El has never before seen Bucho, just as Moco had never before seen El. Bucho orders a hit on El and Carolina after El wipes out an entire segment of his cartel gunmen. El and Carolina manage to escape the hit and wait on the sidelines as Bucho pulls up to Carolina’s bookstore which he ordered to be burned to the ground. Carolina, who had been protecting Bucho’s honor up until this point, is quick to tell El that the man he wants to kill is in shooting range. El pulls out a scoped pistol to take the shot…
But El doesn’t take the shot. For the first time in the entirety of both films, El hesitates. Even when El didn’t have a guitar case full of guns and was only being chased due to mistaken identity, El is able to kill without hesitation. It’s one of the most noting peculiarities of his character. He pulls the gun back and stands up in a show of visible upset. His arms flail about and Carolina is disgusted. Bucho will kill her, she hisses at El, and he’ll kill El too. El walks away from the vantage point and Carolina is forced to follow since he is now her only ally.
Throughout the film there are parallels between El and Bucho drawn, something that wasn’t done in El Mariachi with Moco and El, or even Moco and Azul. Earlier in Desperado, El is approached by a boy on the street (guess the color of his shirt) with a guitar who wishes to look inside El’s own case. Since El’s case is filled with weapons, he tells the boy no. The boy sticks around anyway and begins to talk about his own guitar being a hand-me-down from his father. El’s interest is struck then and he shows the boy how to loosen his fingers while he plays, making sure to tell him to “forget this hand” in mention to his hand that is scarred. This boy in the yellow shirt, a continuation from El Mariachi (although not the same boy), is seen later when Bucho is assessing the damage of El’s shootout with the very same bar the story teller visited earlier in the week. Bucho hears the boy play the chords that El taught him and becomes visibly detached to the current situation. Although Bucho says nothing to the boy, his expression is weighed down with memories and Rodriguez places an ominous audio of the echo of children’s laughter over the chord. The boy walks away, leaving Bucho to his memories and the corpses of his gunmen.
After refusing to kill Bucho, El and Carolina sit in a desolate hotel room together. In comparison to the earlier scene where El held her in an embrace, she has taken special care to stay as far away from him as possible. El, in his nervousness, breaks the archetype of the legendary gunslinger that constantly presses onto him throughout the visions of others, and begins to babble to Carolina about his past. He tells her that Bucho’s men, Moco and the like, killed the woman he loved and shot through his hand. Ultimately, on the verge of tears, El confesses that it ruined his life. Carolina is short with him though, the exact opposite of a soft-spoken sidekick. She demands to know why El didn’t just kill Bucho. Just as before, El avoids the question, but he promises her that they will both be free from Bucho soon enough.
El takes Carolina back into the city for another shootout to finish off the last of Bucho’s men. It’s clear that he will go in circles around the cartel boss before actually confronting him face-to-face but Carolina fights by his side anyway. It’s not until the same boy in the yellow shirt, who has now moved on from the dream-like foreshadowing presence of El Mariachi into a real-world predecessor for ultimate conflict, is shot during the crossfire that El finally takes on the image of avenger that is constantly being pressed upon him. El and Carolina take the boy to a hospital and then El storms out in a rage, Carolina right at his side.
With no questioning the location, El takes Carolina straight to Bucho’s ranch. It’s almost an exact mirroring of El’s arrival at Moco’s ranch in El Mariachi, although Carolina is not immediately at risk. El walks straight through the ranch gates with Carolina to find Bucho waiting with what’s left of his crew of gunmen, their weapons pointed at the two lovers. Bucho quickly lowers his weapon at the sight of El and orders everyone else to lower their weapons as well. “I thought I was looking for the devil himself,” he says, “but it was my own kid brother.”
Rodriguez added more depth to his previous story line, even if it looks in hindsight to be pretty telenovela in substance. In recognition that his debut could be done better, Rodriguez took to the idea of remaking his first film while also continuing the story, saving us from a quick rehash with an in-his-prime Antonio Banderas. The story of El Mariachi was always strange and the franchise mirrors the strangeness, however it reaches marketability as it progresses. With heavy hitting actors such as Banderas, Salma Hayek, Steve Buscemi, and Joaquim de Almeida, he’s able to press the lines of the typical action film outside of the cartoony boundaries.
El’s confrontation with Bucho ends in violence. Did you expect anything else? Bucho threatens to kill Carolina and El refuses to let the film mirror the old story’s end. He chooses Carolina over Bucho and kills him along with the rest of the cartel. The scene fades out from Bucho’s bullet ridden corpse and takes the audience back to the hospital where the boy in the yellow shirt lays in the hospital bed. In the first film there is a distinct disconnect between El and the meaning of the violence. He knows it’s wrong but he never quite seems able to articulate why. It’s not until the death of Bucho that El starts to fully form into the typical stoic, gunslinger archetype. Desperado ends with El riding into the sunset, just as he did in El Mariachi, but in the passenger’s seat while Carolina drives. He brings his guitar case full of guns “just in case” anything happens. Carolina rolls her eyes but doesn’t comment.
“Just in case” takes place in the third film of the franchise, Once Upon a Time in Mexico. While filming Desperado ten years prior to Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Quentin Tarantino is accredited to telling Rodriguez (as stated within the DVD commentary of the third film), “This is your Sergio Leone dollars trilogy. You have to make a third one and you have to make it big and you have to call it Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” Rodriguez wasn’t one to argue but he wasn’t compelled until the rise of digital cameras and the over cranking method of HDCAM24 to make the third installment of the franchise. Desperado had not pulled much weight in domestic grossing when out in theaters (which Rodriguez attributes in all three film commentaries as mismarketing for a Hispanic film that Columbia couldn’t wrap their brains around) but had pulled a cult audience over the years via televised broadcasts of the film. Hispanic-centered content in general reached a rising percentage and Columbia, Rodriguez’s production company, had been pressing continuously for another installment for years. But it wasn’t until Rodriguez found a new toy in digital filming that he undertook the task.
The entire film was constructed fairly quickly. Rodriguez says he wrote the script in less than a week. The quick construction of the film had its drawbacks. Salma Hayek was in the middle of filming Frida and was unable to dedicate much time to the film. Rodriguez used the obstacle as a plot point and killed Carolina, giving El something new to avenge, along with the death of his and Carolina’s daughter. Filming in Mexico hit a few walls as the crew was unable to import their fake guns in time for one of the shootouts. Rodriguez improvised and used rubber guns and CGI to overcome the obstacles.
In keeping with the Sergio Leone feeling of the trilogy, Rodriguez felt stressed to place a The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly feeling within the film by splitting the time evenly among his characters. Instead of El being the focal point of the film, he shares the spot light with two new characters, which is practically unheard of within an established action franchise of the 21st century. El’s time is split as The Good with The Bad, a rogue CIA agent named Sands (played brilliantly by an energetic Johnny Depp), and The Ugly, cartel boss Barillo (played by Willem Dafoe). Rodriguez’s short preparation time is evident in many ways, such as the deliberate changes of aesthetics from the opening story sequence in comparison to the later filmed scenes. The opening sequence is a mirror of storytelling sequence in Desperado with the exceptional addition of Carolina’s character. Rodriguez keeps to his cartoony routes, featuring a small bit where El uses an actual guitar as a weapon, although it’s quickly alleviated by this new story teller, played by Cheech Marin, saying, “These stories are well traveled. They might have picked up some embellishments along the way.” Marin’s character acts as a bridge from Desperado to Once Upon a Time in Mexico—a new mouth piece in which Rodriguez can say, “Yes, I understand that this is what I’m known for, but even I’m not this outrageous.” He’s a conscious director who knows how his work can be construed by a serious critic audience. As his budget extends, so do his use of playful pokes at industry. Nobody knows better than Rodriguez that he’s no Scorsese.
Just as Rodriguez’s style has matured, so has El. It’s been ten years since the plot of Desperado and he’s lost his wife, Carolina, and their daughter at the hands of a military general who had set his eyes on Carolina. When she refused to leave her family for General Marquez, he killed her along with her daughter. He shot El multiple times in the chest, also leaving him for dead, and he succeeds in a way. El is a shadow of the man in Desperado and even further from the character in El Mariachi. He is now the silent gunslinger, a do-gooder but also a man who will not fight unless practically forced. Without his love, he mopes around in the shadows until Sands (Johnny Depp) drags him out into the forefront with the assurance of revenge.
Sands is the most pestilent, yet charming, addition to the cast of characters. In the first two films there is a standard dichotomy of good and evil. We have our gunslinger and we have our cartel boss. We have this same epidemic in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, however the clashing of these forces is created through Sands’s Machiavellian spin. Marquez and El would never cross paths again without Sands’s orchestration or greed. Sands delivers his own men to El’s small town and has him dragged out to a meeting at a restaurant by gunpoint. When Sands and El meet for the first and last time in person, Sands makes an impression as the obvious American presence in the films, a direct contrast to the mainly Hispanic cast in each of the three films. The CIA agent is a puppet master, a completely new character type in the trilogy. He is the one who hires El to kill Marquez (to further his own ends. Sands’s ultimate motivation is to steal the money used by Barillo to pay for the coup and run away with a female DEA agent). In order to orchestrate that his bite is just as patent as his bark, Sands gives a long speech to El about restoring the balance. El has to allow Marquez to kill the Mexican president. He illustrates this by monologuing that, for as long as he’s been in Mexico, he goes to every restaurant and orders the same pork dish. The pork dish at the restaurant they currently sit at is so good that when Sands finishes the meal, he will have to kill the chef who cooked his meal. The Mexican president, he tells El, is like that piece of good pork. El is especially unmoved by this, but his character is just as motivated by revenge as before. Sands could have easily asked without a monologue and El still would have taken the job. El walks out, new task in hand. Then, just as he said he would, Sands ends the scene by murdering the chef who made his meal.
The film is unreasonably convoluted, a side effect of Rodriguez throwing too many things together and hoping for chance cohesion. However, what his storytelling lacks in plot stability, it makes up for in general entertainment. Keeping with the odd sequencing of the franchise, the film constantly refers back to a ghost film in between Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico that tells of the adventures of Carolina and El before their happy ending was further ended.
Along with this, the boy in the yellow shirt makes another appearance, although he never meets El. Almost in acknowledgement of Sands overtaking the action of the franchise, he is the one who makes contact with the mythical boy in the yellow shirt. In what has been described as a paternal interaction in an otherwise irredeemable character, it’s through this boy that Sands is able to blur the lines between villain and hero.
Over the course of the film, Sands has his eyes drilled out by drug cartel leader Barillo, the father of the woman he had planned to run away with. Sands, in an unprecedented narrative move, completely changes archetypes and becomes the hero in search of revenge. The story suddenly becomes The Good, The Almost-Good, and The Still Ugly. This change is further cemented through the fact that the largest indicator of who the avenger is, the boy in the yellow shirt, has moved from confronting El to confronting Sands. The boy acts as a seeing-eye dog and literally guides Sands into the fray of the action so he can find the woman who betrayed his trust so that he can kill her.
It’s hardly the path of a righteous hero. El would never be seen killing a woman in order to further himself, even for revenge, but by Rodriguez already establishing Sands as a character who would kill a chef for cooking a pork dish too good (and earlier in the film, Sands murders a waitress for spilling coffee on his sleeve), he is able to twist the character in nonconventional ways. Sands becomes one of the surprising highpoints of the film and, through one instance of telling the boy in the yellow shirt to leave before the gunfight breaks out so that he doesn’t get shot (which is an action even El was not outwardly conscious enough to do in the midst of seeking his revenge in Desperado), he becomes a character the audience not only roots for, but also sympathizes with. When Sands gets his revenge, it is far sweeter than when El kills Marquez and saves the Mexican president. El is still the one who walks into the sunset, this time with a sash with Mexico’s flag on it, but the scene is short in comparison to the first two films. Practically a blink.
Robert Rodriguez is the furthest from a conventional director as an audience member can get. His style is distinctly his, yet constantly fluctuates as he experiments. The El Mariachi trilogy can be described as his dollars trilogy, but can also be described to as unprepared, unconventional, and out-of-sequence. By keeping to his roots as a cartoonist, he delivers consistent inconsistency, even with the same character. However, within these inconsistencies, he’s able to give unbelievable growth. El is allowed to change from the guitar fighter to a legend but even Rodriguez realizes that’s not quite enough. Once the established hero becomes the usual hero, he switches attention over to a new vengeance seeker in Sands to keep the audience hooked. (There had originally been talks of creating a new franchise around Sands, but it never came to light.) Rodriguez, therefore, has made a steady foundation, and career, by being as unsteady as possible.