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Like Machete? Try El Mariachi

I might be only person on the internet who was somewhat underwhelmed by Robert Rodriguez’s Machete. For me, the film’s undoing was the result of mixing its Mexploitation elements with all the preaching on a serious political subject: illegal immigration. How are we supposed to enjoy the simple action when Jessica Alba’s yelling “we didn’t cross the border! The border crossed us” (a rather lame rip-off of Malcolm X’s line "we didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us!"). How can we take what the film has to say about illegal immigrants seriously as Machete uses another man’s intestines as a rappelling rope? The trailer for Machete is better than the film itself, despite a naked Lohan and Cheech Marin’s excellent turn as a dual-shotgun wielding homicidal priest.

Writer/director Robert Rodriguez has made more successful action pictures over the past 20 years, not the least of which are Desperado and Planet Terror (however, Machete is a vast improvement over Spy Kids.) Today though we shall focus on his first feature, 1992’s El Mariachi.

El Mariachi is a prime example of a mistaken-identity film. The eponymous character is just a poor guitar player looking to make a living in a rural Mexican town. Unbeknownst to him, another man, Azul, has recently escaped from prison and is looking to kill his former friend, Moco. Unfortunately for El Mariachi, Azul wears similar clothes and has a guitar case too, but his is full of weapons. A series of chance encounters results in El Mariachi and the object of his affection getting into confused trouble with Moco’s henchmen, eventually ending up in an exciting finale . It becomes clear to him quickly that he’ll have to do something other than play music if he hopes to get out of this mess.

The story of how Rodriguez made the film has provided inspiration for independent filmmakers everywhere. He raised $7,000 by selling himself to a pharmaceutical company for a month, then shot the film with the money, often only making a single take of every setup and using the actors not required for the scene as the crew to save cash. And therein lies its strength as a grindhouse movie. The film got into Sundance the same time as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, the two hit it off, and their friendship has resulted in Rodriguez’s Machete, which Tarantino also produced. 

Rodriguez has said in interviews that he only intended El Mariachi to be a practice film, ironic both because of its great critical and commercial success, and because his $7,000 practice film is better executed than his $25 million so-called non-practice feature. Sure, the story is light and easy to follow, but what’s a guy to do when he’s only got a few grand to make his story? Rodriguez’s clever script, low budget violence, (his squibs were condoms filled with fake blood), and charming amateur ability as a 23-year-old filmmaker meld together to make El Mariachi a better grindhouse flick than Machete could ever hope to be.


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