Famous as the movie made for $7,000, El Mariachi is a penny-ante gasser whose frenetic style successfully outstrips its derivative content. Set in a small Mexican town, the film drops a mild-mannered traveling guitarist (Carlos Gallardo) — the mariachi of the title — into the middle of a gang war, where he’s quickly mistaken for a vicious killer. Writer-director-coproducer Robert Rodriguez manages to have his genre parody and eat it, too: Consuelo Gómez plays it satirically and straight as a femme fatale named Domino. And so what if the visual style is of the keep-it-moving-and-no-one-will-notice-how-cheap-it-looks school? It’s nice to see a filmmaker who isn’t afraid of a fish-eye lens.
In the end, though, the movie is limited by its self-conscious playfulness. On one level, El Mariachi is a brazen reminder that all you need to make a good movie is an imaginative eye, a camera, film stock, and friends willing to work for free — all the rest is Hollywood’s way of justifying itself. But Rodriguez makes the same mistake as other first-time auteurs: The world of this movie exists only in relation to other movies, particularly the Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns of the early ’60s. El Mariachi announces the arrival of a new voice who still needs something to say. B-