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Banderas on the Run

In 'Desperado,' Antonio Banderas avenges 'El Mariachi'

By Richard Von Busack

Will Robert Rodriguez's new film, Desperado, finally make Antonio Banderas a big star? Banderas is the best-looking man in the movies today, and the poster for Desperado is unusually astute in selling the film by putting nothing but his face on it.

Some of us have been watching that face for years, in Almodovar's early comedies, in Philadelphia, in the failed Mambo Kings, in the neglected Miami Rhapsody. His effete French bloodsucker in Interview With a Vampire has at last brought him some well-deserved recognition. Wherever Vampire costar Brad Pitt's photo turns up, there, too, should be Banderas' image. Pitt and Banderas both have the same actorly hair, only Banderas' hair displays a wider emotional range. Both have the same sensual mouth, only Banderas' mouth is beguiling instead of spoiled like Pitt's.

Robert Rodriguez: The El Mariachi interview

Desperado trailer online

Cool Quentin Tarantino site
(he worked on the script and appears in the movie)

Banderas is as dry a comedian as they come, and unlike so many of the pretty ones, he isn't a wash-out as an actor. His English is much improved over the past few movies, and he's chosen his roles well--except for House of the Spirits. The movies he's been in that didn't work weren't his fault.

Desperado, a ridiculously entertaining post-Western and unusually lighthearted comic vengeance film, may not please Banderas' female fans. There should have been more kissing in it. Desperado is almost all gunplay, and the word "gunplay" is appropriate. I read somewhere that in The Wild Bunch, more bullets were fired than were shot off in the real Mexican civil war. Desperado probably expends more bullets than the number of times that director Rodriguez has watched The Wild Bunch--but not by much. This is a movie-based movie.

With a small arsenal squirreled away in a guitar case, the modern-day gunslinger El Mariachi (Banderas) dispatches countless tough hombres in almost scholarly conceived slapstick action sequences. Perhaps the best example of Rodriguez' comic touch is a gunfight in a bar in which the last two survivors helplessly click their empty revolvers at each other.

Banderas' El Mariachi is not much of a fist-fighter, though he clocks a roughneck over the head with his guitar, just like El Kabong, Quickdraw McGraw's dark, vigilante alter-ego. He does harbor some regrets about his crime wave. Banderas' fans already knows how attractive he is when he looks melancholy.

Of course, the unnamed Mariachi man has reasons for having gone berserk. In 1992's El Mariachi, to which Desperado is the sort-of sequel, the Mariachi character (played by Carlos Gallardo) had to watch his girlfriend get killed in front of him and took a bullet in the hand. Now, as that awful joke has it, he's back, looking for the man who shot his paw.

Rodriguez made his name with El Mariachi, a ludicrously low-budget ($7,000 was the usual figure quoted) feature shot in downtown Ciudad Acuna, Chihuahua. (Desperado was filmed in the same small town; the cops seem to have given up completely to make room for the shootists.) El Mariachi played in Spanish- and English-language theaters alike--a small victory for the multiculturalism.

Desperado offers the same delirious musician-on-the-warpath story, only bigger and crazier and with a little bit of stop-the violence message--a young boy who has to be rescued from the gunman's way. Though Banderas spells out the message believably--"Everyone I killed was someone's son, or someone's brother"--it does look a little pious, since the rest of the movie dishes out so much mindless fun.

In any case, Rodriguez communicates what he has to say about the idiocy of revenge in both the innovative ending--a white-out just before the ultimate pay back--and in the way that his inspired physical comedy subtly undercuts machismo. El Mariachi is driven to satisfy his honor but is usually too shot or cut full of holes to do anything about it. He's the perfect macho, with a wounded, bleeding heart under the tough hide, the theatrical sorrow visible in Banderas' suffering face and audible in Los Lobos' marvelous original soundtrack.

There is, of course, romance, with Carolina, a bookstore owner who digs the bullets out of El Mariachi even before they're properly introduced. Elena (luscious Mexican soap-opera star Salma Hayek), performs the surgery on the counter of her store. No one will interrupt them, she says, because nobody reads anymore.

The love scene between Elena and El Mariachi tends to rely on some cliches, including close-ups of flames and a montage of unidentifiable body parts (a haunch? a stomach?) being stroked. There are, however, two quirky touches: During the montage, El Mariachi gently runs one of his rounded spurs up Elena's leg and down her naked back. The climax is a series of rapid, overlapping fades from slightly different angles, in which the flickering candles in the bedroom, about a 1,000 of them, flash, blur and die, leaving tracers like skyrockets bursting.

Desperado also boasts an engaging villain, the drug lord Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida, who played the Colombian coke kingpin in Clear and Present Danger). De Almeida has the distasteful, droopy gaze of Rex Harrison as he glowers at his legions of bodyguards. (He shoots one of his small army to encourage the others.)

Even the customers have a hard time at Bucho's bar, where a sanguinary rampage takes place. After it's over, 25 bullet-riddled stiffs lie on the barroom floor, and Bucho's flunkies are literally mopping up, just when a pack of smiling American tourists try to come in for a quick round, only to be shooed away by Bucho: "Can't you see we're closed?"

Steve Buscemi, who plays El Mariachi's whiskery sidekick, starts the film by telling a story to a clearly unimpressed Cheech Marin about how El Mariachi previously shot up a place looking for information. (Rodriguez's editing is especially fine here, as he cuts between the action and Buscemi's account of it). In a celebrity cameo, Quentin Tarantino shows up long enough to tell a joke and get killed.

Obviously, this isn't exactly Cries and Whispers. Desperado also certainly isn't as profound and beautiful a film as John Boorman's Beyond Rangoon, and watching it, your better nature nags you, wishing there were more new Lubitschs to go around with all of the new Peckinpahs. Still, Desperado delivers riotous, kinetic fun and makes El Mariachi look like a student film.

Like the best Hong Kong action fight pictures, Desperado has a sense of eagerness, of flexibility, that's missing from the elephantine Hollywood actioners. As exhilarating as Desperado is, it's even more impressive that Rodriguez managed to control it so thoroughly. He's a genuine auteur, having directed, written, produced and edited (on a computer at home) the whole thing.

Rodriguez's independence is especially worth congratulating, considering that low-budget filmmakers are routinely turned into contract hacks when they have a success. Rodriguez also deserves congratulations for getting Banderas in the close-up. With luck, he'll stay there, where he belongs.

Desperado (R; 106 minutes), directed and written by Robert Rodriguez, photographed by Guillermo Navarro and starring Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek and Joaquim de Almeida plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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