There are very few Hollywood directors right now who do stylized ultra-violence as well as Robert Rodriguez does. He recently upped the ante in a big way with Sin City but you can really see the genesis of what the man is capable of in El Mariachi and Desperado, and while story-wise the final film in the trilogy, Once Upon A Time In Mexico, is a little weak, it's still got plenty of amazing action set pieces and a few stand out performances that definitely make it worth a watch.
Columbia/Tri-Star originally released the first two films on a double feature disc that left something to be desired in terms of quality. They'd later release them on separate DVDs in much improved editions, and eventually give Once Upon A Time In Mexico a special edition release as well. Now they're repackaged the second, better editions of the first two films and tossed them into some slimline keepcases with the third film and wrapped them all up in a nice little box and called it the Mexico Trilogy, dropping the MSRP down and making for a very attractive package for those who don't already have these films. Please note that if you already have the later releases of the first two films and Once Upon A Time In Mexico that you can stop reading now as these discs are exactly the same as those releases and contain the same transfers, the same sound mixes, and the same extra features.
Made fast and cheap for amazingly low sum of only $7,000.00, El Mariachi is the movie that made people start paying attention to the young up and coming director. It was shot fast and cheap on 16mm film stock and ended up earning a selection at the Sundance Film Festival which in turn skyrocketed him into Hollywood far faster than anyone could really have imagined.
The movie borrows a little bit from Sergio Leone in that the lead is a mariachi without a name (played by Carlos Gallordo) needs to find a paying gig and as such, he wanders into a town looking for somewhere that he can play. Things start to move when a crime lord named Roco (Peter Marquardt) hears word that his arch-enemy, Azul (Reinol Martinez) has busted out of the big-house and is gunning for him. Unfortunately for the mariachi, he's a dead ringer for the escaped convict who is out for blood, and soon Roco's men are planning a pre-emptive strike on him.
The only person in town who the mariachi even knows is the grungy bartender, Domino (Consuelo Gomez), but there's more to that than he realizes and it won't be long before the mariachi has to put down his guitar and pick up some guns if he wants to make it out of town alive…
There are a few interesting twists in the story along the way but at its heart, El Mariachi is a rather simple tale, but a very effective one. The story of how Rodriguez put all of this together for less than the cost of a good used car has become something of a filmmaking legend (check out the commentary for more details on that) but what matters is that not only did he finish the film but he delivered something special, something worth watching. Originally made for the Spanish speaking market the film was thought to have only limited appeal but the story of the mariachi fighting for his life proved to be a lot more popular than anyone ever initially thought not because of the acting or the story but because of the editing and the action choreography. Rodriguez has a knack for staging shoot outs and fights and even here at a young age in his feature film debut, he shows ability above and beyond a lot of what we see in big budgeted Hollywood productions.
The film isn't a literal masterpiece and it does have it's flaws in the acting department. There are times when the low budget shines through in a few spots but overall, El Mariachi is a pretty amazing accomplishment and one that would set the director up nicely to move on to bigger and better things. Which brings us to…
If Rodriguez was able to turn in a good movie with a seven thousand dollar budget, imagine what he'd be able to do with seven million dollars!
This time out, the mariachi's dirty boots were filled by Antonio Banderas, in one of the best roles of his career. While the film tells a story very similar to that of El Mariachi, it's not quite a remake as it throws a few different twists into the mix. The film again beings with the lone mariachi with no name wanders into town looking for work.
A crime lord named Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida) runs his business out of a bar (where Cheech Marin works behind the counter) and we find out that the mariachi is here looking for him to get revenge. Crime lords don't tend to take that type of thing laying down, however, and when he finds out that the mariachi is here, he wastes no time assembling an army of hit-men to take him down first.
Luckily, or so it would seem, for the mariachi, the beautiful Caroline (Selma Hayek) is willing to hide him in the confines of her small bookstore. With this safe haven, he wages his war against Bucho to exact his revenge, and gets some help from a few friends along the way.
The biggest difference here is that the mariachi character doesn't walk into things by accident this time out. He's a cold blooded killer out for revenge, his guitar case a cache of hidden weapons. With a great supporting cast made up of Steve Buscemi, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo and Quentin Tarantino, Rodriguez's second voyage into the world of guitar playing gunslingers is a highly polished and incredibly entertaining affair choke full of bloody violence and black humor. Banderas plays the role perfectly, he's suave and slick and just over the top enough to fit the bill, while Hayek brings some very welcome sex appeal to the movie. Their chemistry together works well and is a lot of fun, but the real reason to check this one out is for the action and the gun play.
From the opening scene where Banderas struts across the bar playing his guitar to the grand finale where his mariachi brethren show up to help him out, there's tension in the air of the movie and where there's tension, there's violence. Stealing a page or two from John Woo and another page or two from Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, Rodriguez crafts one of the most enjoyable shoot'em ups of the nineties. Again, it's not all that original and in fact some scenes are down right derivative but it's fast moving and well made and completely enjoyable.
Once Upon A Time In Mexico:
Now firmly established as a top talent in the industry, Rodriguez, after making a few movies in between this one and Desperado, decided to finish the Mariachi films with this last move in the trilogy. Again, the budget had been bumped up, this time to thirty million dollars, and the action set pieces also escalated with it.
Banderas is once more El Mariachi, and this time he's being searched out by an FBI agent named Sands (Johnny Depp) who wants to hire him to kill off General Marquez (Gerardo Vigel) as he knows that he's in cahoots with a drug lord name Barillo (Willem Dafoe). It seems that Marquez and Barillo have got bigger plans than just peddling dope, they're actually involved in planning to take down portions of the Mexican government, and Sands aims to stop that from happening before it's too late.
El Mariachi has a reason to take this job aside from the lucrative paycheck that Sands has dangled in front of his face, as we learn through a flashback sequence that Marquez was the man behind the murder of his wife, Carolina (once again played by Selma Hayek). So with the tempting prospect of revenge proving too hard for him to resist, he assembles his troupe of guitar playing gunmen and sets out to wage war on Marquez and Barillo, but things get complicated when another FBI agent named Ajedrez (Eva Mendes) steps into the picture and a second crime boss named Billy (Mickey Rourke) moves onto the scene.
While Once Upon A Time In Mexico definitely has its moments, it is ultimately bogged down by too many subplots and a truly messy and muddled plot. The basic premise is simple enough, but there are too many distractions from that premise and it ends up hurting the film a bit. That being said, Depp and Banderas are great in the movie, as are Rourke and Defoe. Hayek is pretty much disposable in this one, as despite her prominent role in the ad campaign, her screen time amounts to no more than a few minutes of flashback and as such the sexual tension between Carolina and the mariachi that made Desperado so fun doesn't really come into play here.
The best parts of the film are the action scenes, particularly Depp's last stand, which pays tribute to Fernando Baldi's 1971 underrated Spaghetti Western gem, Blindman. The violence is even more stylized here than it was in the first two movies and everything about the film is as slick and as polished as can be. Rodriguez did most of his own cinematography for the film and the movie does look fantastic as it does a great job of capturing the dust, dirt and grit of the locations in fantastic detail.
El Mariachi is presented in this set in a pretty decent 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. This disc is the second release of the film and as such it has a better transfer than the original version that was first released on DVD a few years ago. Much of the grain that plagued that first release (the double feature disc that paired it with Desperado) has been eliminated as has a lot of the print damage. The colors look very nice on this release and there aren't any serious problems with edge enhancement or mpeg compression artifacts. The film still shows evidence of its low budget 16mm roots, as it should, but the transfer here leaves little to complain about.
Again, this is the improved transfer of the film in this set, not the one from the double feature release. The anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen image is nice and clean without any serious print damage and only minor grain evident in some scenes. Edge enhancement is kept to a minimum and there aren't any compression artifacts to complain about. There's plenty of detail present in both the foreground and the background of the image and skin tones look nice and natural. Colors look great, black levels are strong and deep, and overall this is a very nice transfer.
Once Upon A Time In Mexico:
It should come as no surprise to find that the most recent film in the set also looks the best. The 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is nice and sharp with a lot of detail present in the image, even more so than in the other two films in this set. Colors look bright and bold and very distinct and the black levels stay strong throughout. There's virtually no dirt or debris on the image at all and the compression artifacts are a non issue save for one or two mild instances occurring in some of the darker scenes. Edge enhancement doesn't get in the way, which is nice, and flesh tones look lifelike and natural.
El Mariachi: The two audio mixes on this disc are a Spanish language Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track and a dubbed French language Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track. Subtitles are optional in English, French, Spanish and Korean and an English language closed captioning option is also present.
The low budget nature of this film kind of prohibits a really great surround mix, but the Spanish language 2.0 track does have a few moments where you'll notice some nice channel separation spicing things up a bit. The dialogue is clear and easy to follow but again, surround activity is definitely on the smaller side of things here. This isn't the most dynamic or active of sound mixes, but it gets the job done and sounds as good as anything else made with roughly the same amount of money, and better than most.
Desperado: The second film comes with an English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix, and 2.0 Surround Sound mixes in French and Portuguese. Subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Thai, and English closed captioning is also available. The DTS mix that is on the Superbit release of this DVD is not included on this disc.
The English 5.1 mix is very aggressive and offers plenty of distinct channel separation but also handles the quieter moments in the film nicely as well. Dialogue is clean, clear and easy to understand and there are no problems at all with any trace of audible hiss or distortion in the mix. The score swells up around you from behind in a few scenes for added dramatic effect and the lower end is strong and powerful, especially during the shoot outs. No complains here, this is a great mix.
Once Upon A Time In Mexico: Audio options on the last film include an English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix and a dubbed French language Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix. Optional subtitles are supplied in English and French and an English closed captioning feature it also present.
This mix is great and free of any audible hiss or distortion, but there definitely could have been more done in terms of channel separation and ambient sound effects. The action scenes sound fantastic, with bullets whizzing past you and explosions really hitting your subwoofer they way it likes to be hit, and the dialogue sounds crystal clear but the score rarely comes at you anywhere other than the very front of the mix and as such it could have been a bit more engrossing had it been spread around a bit more. That's a minor complaint though, as for the most part the mix on this DVD delivers.
First up is a full length commentary with writer/director Robert Rodriguez. This track makes for a fantastic extra, as Rodriguez more or less takes us through the entire making of the film in one lively discussion. He covers the budget problems he ran into, a lot of money saving techniques he employed, some of the aspects of the effects and stunt work that was done for the film and some of the incidents he ran into while shooting this one on such a shoe string budget. Rodriguez is very entertaining on this track, making some entertaining jokes while he educates us at the same time.
There's also a ten minute short film on here, directed by Rodriguez, entitled Bedhead. This quick little comedic short tells the story of a little girl named Rebecca who gains psychic powers after a squabble with her older brother lands her on her head.
The Film School featurette is a ten minute comparison that shows us what his raw footage looked like versus the finished versions of the scenes that made it into the final cut of the film. It gives us a nice idea of how the post-production process can make such a huge difference in a movie and it's really interesting to see the truly creative methods he used to spice up his film.
Rounding out the extra features on this disc are a Sneak Peek At Once Upon A Time In Mexico which is a quite collection of interviews with the cast members from that film and behind the scenes clips, as well as trailers for all three films in this boxed set, The Legend Of Zorro and Love And A Bullet.
Once again, we get a commentary track with director Robert Rodriguez, who fills us in on the making of the movie. What's interesting about this track is just how very different the experience was compared to what he went through making El Mariachi. This time out, while he was still making his movie, he did so from safely within the confines of the Hollywood studio system and he points out some advantages and some disadvantages of both ways of working. He also details the casting, how his working relationship was with Banderas, Hayek, and even Cheech, and how Quentin Tarantino ended up in the movie. It's an interesting commentary and a lot of fun to listen to.
A follow up to the film school featurette from the El Mariachi DVD is also included, entitled Ten More Minutes, which again is a look at how the footage goes through various stages of polishing and editing and post production to the version we see up there on the big screen or on DVD.
The same promo spot for Once Upon A Time In Mexico that was on the El Mariachi DVD is on here, as are trailers for the three films in this set and for Love And A Bullet. There are also some filmographies on here for Banderas, Hayek and Rodriguez.
Once Upon A Time In Mexico:
This disc definitely gets more love in the extra features department than the other two in the set. First up is a commentary track with Robert Rodriguez, and as he's proven in the two films that came before this one, he knows how to deliver a really nice mix of humor and facts/trivia on his discussion. He covers casting, shooting on digital video versus film, a lot of the post production tweaking that went into a few scenes, some of the stunt work and even the score. Seeing as Rodriguez wore so many hats getting this movie made he's obviously the one to go to for all the inside information and he doesn't disappoint. The man covers an insane amount of detail in this track and there's barely more than a few seconds of dead air throughout. If there's one complain to levy against it, it's that one feels he had a lot more to say that he just didn't have time to delve into here.
The second commentary track features Rodriguez again, but this time he focuses on the music that he composed for the film. A large portion of this track is simply the isolated score, but there are a lot of sound effects in here too and Rodriguez does an interesting job of parlaying to us how and why he created the sounds for the film that he did. This is a pretty unique way of learning about the audio in the film and it proves to be pretty interesting stuff.
Continuing the tradition, we find a third ten minute segment entitled Ten Minute Flick School where once again, Rodriguez shows us how adding the special effects overtop of the digital photography really helped him in post production and in terms of keeping the budget realistic.
Inside Troublemaker Studios is an eleven minute tour of Rodriguez's home studio where he's set himself up with pretty much everything he needs to make movies out of his house. There's also a soundstage in Austin that he uses but by and large he does the majority of his work out of the rooms he has set up in his home and it's a pretty interesting scenario that he's built.
A thirteen minute Film Is Dead segment is up next, where Rodriguez talks to a crowd about his experiences shooting the film digitally. A lot of this information is covered in the commentary track but there's still some neat footage in here.
The Anti Hero's Journey looks back at the Mariachi films over eighteen minutes of clips, interviews, and behind the scenes footage from the set of Once Upon A Time In Mexico. This is an interesting refresher course and it made sense for it to be on the individual release of the film, but bundled here in a set with the other two movies it's rather redundant.
Finally, there are four deleted scenes offered, each with optional director's commentary explaining why they were excised from the final cut of the film (it was all about the pacing and the timing).
Rounding out the extras on this disc are filmographies for the key cast and crew members, two trailers for the feature, trailers for Big Fish, Hellboy, El Mariachi, Desperado, Resident Evil - Apocalypse, The Missing, In The Cut, Underworld, and You Got Served, and an advertisement for the soundtrack. There's also a ten minute bit called Robert Rodriguez's Cooking School which is a demonstration on how to cook up the pork that Depp's character liked so much in the feature.
With an MSRP of under thirty dollars for three great looking and great sounding special edition DVDs, the Robert Rodriguez Mexico Trilogy comes highly recommended if you don't already own them. Sure, the third and so far final entry in the series ends it on a less than perfect note but all three films have got enough going for them to make this set highly recommended. Three fun movies in great presentations with loads of features at a killer price point? You know it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.