Skip to main content

'Desperado' offered a preview of an industry ready for change

Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas in 'Desperado'.
Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas walk confidently away from another explosion in 'Desperado'. (Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado is a movie seemingly made of “trailer moments.” The shots and snippets that provoke and intrigue whether or not they come together, tell a compelling story, or even make basic sense. A narrator describing a man so mysterious that “the lights dimmed just for him.” Imagery of guitar cases firing bullets like machine guns, and eventually, small missiles. Men (and women) walking confidently away from massive explosions. A kiss so hot that it generates smoke. Antonio Banderas wielding twin pistols like he’s throwing the bullets at his targets. A nonstop parade of firearms that eject, emerge from hidden compartments, and snap into place, always available for gunplay. A beautiful woman jumping an impossible distance between rooftops as the folds of her skirt showcase her legs. Acts of romantic derring-do performed by actors the world wanted to make into stars the moment that it saw them.

Is it any wonder, then, that its trailer is one of the best of its era? Still lingering vividly after 25 years, Desperado was nothing short of a game-changer, announcing the arrival of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, and (especially) Rodriguez as Hollywood commodities. Brilliantly, the teaser used both a cornerstone of industry salesmanship - the voice of ubiquitous “trailer actor” Don LaFontaine - and Tito Puente’s “Para Los Rumberos,” a song from Banderas’ earlier film The Mambo Kings, to link these rising Latinx artists to traditions both cinematic and cultural, and legacies simultaneously inherited and newly forged. 

Rodriguez’ wunderkind debut El Mariachi arrived at Sundance in 1993 just a year behind Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and similarly, Desperado stomped into theaters the summer after the release of Tarantino’s transformative sophomore effort Pulp Fiction. Desperado came along at a time when “Tarantinoesque” wasn’t yet a four-letter word for knockoffs audiences would learn to ignore, but a term for the mischievous promise of jazzy dialogue punctuated by unexpected and brutal violence. (Ironically, the film probably owes more in structure and style to Tarantino’s idol John Woo than to Tarantino himself.) That the trailer even featured Tarantino riffing at the end - “it’s cool, ese” - gave the film an additional dollop of cachet, since Rodriguez’ $7,000 breakthrough was a rags-to-riches story primarily for the independent film scene, while his colleague and collaborator had become a household name virtually overnight.

Notwithstanding independent films like My Family, much less infrequent studio projects like The Mambo Kings where American actors were cast in primary roles, few resources were allotted to tell Hispanic/ Latinx stories on a large scale. La Bamba, and two years after Desperado, Selena began a long journey to recognize the contributions of artists from these communities to what the film industry considered “mainstream” audiences. Though his frequent collaborator Pedro Almodovar was a critics darling (if similarly not quite yet a worldwide phenomenon), Banderas wasted no time with his first projects outside Spain, appearing not only as Armand Assante’s lovestruck younger brother in Mambo Kings, but Tom Hanks’ quietly supportive lover in the Oscar-winning Philadelphia, and an aristocratic vampire opposite Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in the blockbuster Anne Rice adaptation Interview with the Vampire. The stars - and Banderas’ stardom - aligned when Rodriguez demonstrated he could tell a captivating, action-oriented story for pennies on the dollar.

It almost doesn’t matter that the movie is silly, has wildly uneven momentum, and after 25 years, retains all of the signs of being someone’s first studio film, much less Rodriguez.' Mind you, his filmmaking oozes a confidence that his abilities wouldn’t catch up to for a few years, showcasing stylistic choices that quite frankly need to be more ubiquitous in the decades since its release. But every scene seems designed for maximum action and minimum storytelling; even John Woo attempts to tell a story in between those glorious shootouts. It also possesses all of the hallmarks of the time in which it was made, picking up threads not just from Woo (abundant slo-mo, elliptical editing) or Tarantino (glib violence, wall-to-wall surf guitar), but an era where dead partners are immediately forgotten (R.I.P. Buscemi), injuries disappear magically, and of course, spectacularly beautiful women are not only unafraid of a black-clad assassin carrying a guitar case full of guns, but wildly charmed by his bloody vendetta.

Suffice it to say that the screen absolutely loves Salma Hayek at least as much as it does Banderas. But in a decade when Hollywood wanted to anoint every comely film actress its Next Big Thing, her arrival practically rewrote the definition of “overnight stardom.” Unsurprisingly, the role offers her nothing particularly substantial, scarcely hinting at the depth she would later bring to roles in Frida and other films. But there’s an undeniable value to a performance that embraces the limitations of a role, and recognizes the responsibility of palpably enjoying being a love interest in an action movie. 

The reason we ignore the fact that the movie instantly forgets poor Buscemi is because she’s the one taking care of Mariachi afterward. The reason we ignore the fact that Mariachi falls in love and has sex with another woman while carrying out vengeance for the death of another woman he loved is because it’s Salma Hayek. Her character, Carolina, literally stops traffic, and Hayek’s onscreen bemusement at her effect on the passersby (and drivers) around her conveys the right tone for a film that is meant to be lighthearted amusement, to everyone.

Rewatching Desperado after 25 years, Rodriguez’ first studio film remains a milestone for numerous reasons, including its star-making turns, its unapologetic embrace of the music, culture and geography of the Mexico that the filmmaker loves, and the decision for a studio to bankroll a story set in and told by the Latinx community, marketed to a wide commercial audience. The fact that it boasts every dumb action movie idea is an absolute asset, because every one of those is exactly the thing that made audiences interested in a film in a foreign language, focused on characters of a different color and a different culture, who had never and otherwise would never watch one. Seldom has a film better been distilled into a trailer, but more importantly, seldom has a trailer better hinted at the exciting possibilities to come - not just for that single film, but for an industry ready and in desperate need of change.

You can stream Desperado on Amazon Prime.