Robert Rodriguiez may be one of the first auteurs that many people my age were exposed to. With many kids learning about his distinctive style from the first three Spy Kids films (2001-2003) and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl (2005). However, I (and many others) soon realized that Rodriguez’s other projects were much different from his child-friendly features. Hyper-violent and over-the-top films. Such as the Spy Kids spin-off films about Danny Trejo’s character, Uncle Machete or the vampire film From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). However, the best way to track the evolution of Rodriguez as a director would have to be analyzing how his series of films in his Mexico Trilogy changed and evolved all marking as important indicators of where Rodriguiez was at creatively during the production of each of these films.
El Mariachi (1992)
The film that started not only the trilogy but also Rodriguez’s career is also the most different of the three. The most famous part of El Mariachi would have to be the lengths that Rodriguez went to to cut costs on this production, costing only about seven thousand to make (not counting post-production costs). It does have an endearing low-budget charm to it, in the same way that Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) does. It is also the only film in the franchise that is all in Spanish as well and has a completely different cast with Carlos Gallardo playing the titular character. Unfortunately, when compared to the other two in the franchise, it definitely lacks the needed polish in the action department that Rodriguez was later known for. But still, as a first-time director to break over a million at the box-office and get picked up by a large production company for a first feature project is wildly impressive. The shots are framed incredibly well, but the lighting is strange. Although Rodriguez using a wheelchair for dolly shots is genius and I would have never noticed if I didn’t read about him utilizing that strategy. If you are at all interested in El Mariachi I would also implore you to read Rodriguiez’s 1995 book about the production of the film, Rebel Without a Crew. Rodriguez’s latest film, Red 11 (2019) was shot on a $7,000 budget as well proving that the director still wishes to take on the challenge of low budget filmmaking.
Ideologically, Desperado may represent Rodriguez best out of all the films he has made, action cinema with a Mexican and Western underpinnings. This is Rodriguiez’s Evil Dead 2 (1987). A hybrid between a sequel and a remake of El Mariachi with a production budget of seven million instead of seven thousand dollars. Antonio Banderas replaces Carlos Gallardo as guitarist-turned-killer El Mariachi and fits into the role fantastically, bringing the charisma that the role desperately needed, including an iconic scorpion jacket. It is a rehash of the revenge-style plot of the first film but instead with a new foe, a cartel named Bucho (Joaquin de Almeida). The much more polished practical-effects heavy action turning into a main-stay of this era of Rodriguez’s films. Some of El Mariachi’s arsenal in Desperado reminds me of the weapons that Rodriguiez would create later in From Dusk Till Dawn and Planet Terror (2007) such as a guitar-rocket launcher. Many of the mainstays of the cast of Rodriguez’s subsequent projects such as: Steve Buschemi, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, and of course, Danny Trejo.
The utilization of Catholic imagery in Desperado and Machete (2010) draw a lot of parallels as well. Not necessarily the utilization of themes of Catholicism but more so the aesthetics of Catholicism because it “looks cool”. In Desperado, El Mariachi goes to confession at a church after going on a killing spree. However, upon learning about Bucho’s other goons tracking him down he tells the priest before storming out that he will have to go to confession later “because where I’m going I’d just have to come right back”. Just one example of the great hyperbolic dialogue from this Mexsploitation film.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
The final film in the trilogy, Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) adds a political layer to the film, with a corrupt CIA agent (Johnny Depp) and a plot to assassinate and overthrow the President of Mexico. Musician Enrique Iglesias plays a character too, in a very odd casting choice. The political themes are not as much as part of a large-scale message that Rodriguiez is attempting to speak on Mexican politics but more-so just an “upping of the stakes” in the final film of the franchise. Once Upon a Time in Mexico to me is seen as a prototype of Machete (2010). A grindhouse-esque juggling act with an ensemble cast of characters in it. Although the latter does it much better for the reason that it goes all in on the absurd. Once Upon a Time still carries the burden of tying up loose ends with other characters while simultaneously giving Banderas’ character a backseat to the handful of new characters. The film is also significant in that it was the first film to be shot in digital high definition, an interesting development for Rodriguez as a creator that was later utilized heavily in Sin City (2005). Unfortunately unlike Sin City, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a messy and in many ways dated film, forgoing the practical effects of Desperado and El Mariachi for the more fashionable CGI at the time but executing it quite poorly. It may be a forgettable entry compared to the superior Desperado but in the greater purview of Rodriguiez’s filmography; it is seen as a stepping stone, a transitional period to greater things for him as a director.