In one of the many spectacularly preposterous duels in Desperado, Antonio Banderas, playing a kind of Mariachi With No Name, lies flat on his back in a scummy Mexican bar and, using a mulish kick, pushes the lout who’s trying to kill him straight up into the air. As the guy goes flying backwards, in luxurious slow motion, Banderas, also in slo-mo, whips out a pair of pistols and fires — blam! blam! blam! — into the guy’s chest. Later, having wasted a dozen enemies with similar aplomb, he enters a confessional and offers the plea, ”Bless me, Father, for I have just killed quite a few men.”
Sometimes a filmmaker gets so far inside the tawdry pleasures of B-movie conventions that the pulp comes out spicy and hot; it can tickle the taste buds of even the most jaded viewer. Desperado, a propulsive rock & roll spaghetti Western, is that kind of movie. Produced, written, edited, and directed by Robert Rodriguez, who won acclaim for his $7,000 south-of-the-border shoot-‘em-up, El Mariachi (1992), the new film is both a sequel to and an expansion of that scruffy no-budget wonder, with the same cheeky camera angles, the same troubadour-gunslinger hero (played, though, by a different actor), and an even more outrageous body count. From what I can see, Rodriguez has almost no interest in developing characters beyond an instantly scannable comic-strip level. And yet, like the filmmakers who’ve obviously inspired him, John Woo and Sam Raimi and the Brian De Palma of Scarface, he succeeds in perching pulp deliriously on the edge of kitsch, creating a stylized universe of blood, sin, and sheer mayhem. Rodriguez understands that the secret of a great action sequence isn’t force but timing — the speed and precision with which you use violence to jolt an audience. The gun battles in Desperado come at you in quick, sharp, music-video bursts, and, with an infectious soundtrack by Los Lobos underlying almost every blast, the action isn’t the usual ”balletic” bash. It feels more like a consummation.
This time the Mariachi is out to even the score with a drug kingpin (Joaquim de Almeida) who killed his lover and shot him in the hand, wrecking his guitar-playing abilities. The plot has all the sophistication of a dime-store-novel cover, but here, as in Woo’s ballistic orgies, the gunplay is the story. The characters use their bullets like words, as an instant communiqué of rage and will. Rodriguez organizes even the quietest scenes around the playful threat of violence: a tattooed brute pushing the buttons of a pay phone with the point of his knife; a bedroom montage with Banderas gently running his spurs over the delectable curves of his new lover (Salma Hayek). The flourishes are so brazen they’re funny. They have payoffs, too: The brute with the knife turns out to have a whole battery of daggers that he flings around like pinwheels, as methodically as the villain’s henchman in a James Bond film. The movie’s greatest visual coup, though, is Banderas himself. The camera loves this velvet stud as much as it did the young Clint Eastwood. With long, straight dark hair that matches his matador-cowboy outfits and a stare as hot as lava, he’s an icon of feral, strutting vengeance.
Not all of Rodriguez’ gambits work. While some of his novelty casting pays off (Cheech Marin has a mean authority as the bartender-of-ceremonies), I could have lived without the cameo by Quentin Tarantino, who fires off a shaggy-dog joke in his self-involved, sputtering-hipster style. A bigger problem is the story’s rather logy rhythm. Rodriguez has a bit of mañana in his blood; his films tend to take naps between set pieces. The dawdling pace has us lingering a little too much over Desperado’s primitive human dimensions. Still, when Rodriguez unleashes a scene with Banderas leaping backwards from one building to the next, or with a couple of mariachis launching rockets from their guitar cases, he’s a true corker. The action, in all its demonically outlandish wit, is its own show. B