Film review

Bandito On The Run

DIRECTED BY Robert Rodriguez

STARRING Antonio Banderas, Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke

Opens September 26, Cert 12A, 100 mins

It's been eight years since Desperado, since we last caught up with the freewheeling exploits of writer-director Robert Rodriguez's gun-toting, guitar-playing, semi-mythic anti-hero El Mariachi. In the meantime, Rodriguez (a low-budget legend who prided himself on making 1992's El Mariachi for $7000) has made horror/sci-fi homage The Faculty starring a pre-Frodo Elijah Wood, and the multi-million-dollar Spy Kids franchise, the third instalment of which has been one of the few reasons to visit a multiplex this summer.

Picking up the blood-soaked, spit-and-sawdust adventures of homicidal hobo El Mariachi so many years down the line, it's gratifying to see that little has changed—Cheech Marin is still playing a luckless bartender, the explosions are still Hiroshima-loud, Salma Hayek still looks phenomenally pneumatic, and El himself is still riffing his Man With No Name schtick with the right mix of guns and gravitas. As the Leone-inspired title suggests, only the scope has increased here, the bandito body count hitting the thousands, and the supporting cast has swelled considerably.

The story? Rogue CIA agent Sands (Depp) recruits the reclusive Mariachi as part of his attempts to avert the assassination of the Mexican president at the hands of drug baron Barillo (Willem Dafoe). There's deeper, darker motives at work here which drive the Mariachi's storyline, and beyond the shouting and shooting, Rodriguez's story assumes the status of an epic revenge drama.

To reinforce the Leone connection, Rodriguez has written a score full of jarring guitar chords and sweeping strings which mimics Morricone but never mocks. Banderas' Mariachi is every bit the Eastwood icon—a haunting, monosyllabic presence, an angle of vengeance dispensing justice with whatever firearm comes to hand. After a string of box office flops (including the double-whammy disaster of Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever and Brian De Palma's Godawful Femme Fatale, straight to video both) Banderas is on top form here, simmering with suave, dangerous sensuality.

Ironically perhaps, the whole show gets pulled from under Banderas' feet by Depp and the fantastic supporting cast, who steer Rodriguez's comic-strip carnage to the next level. Depp is hilarious, amping up his pivotal role with superb comic timing and a succession of increasingly camp false moustaches, bad T-shirts and fake limbs. The deeply unpleasant shit that befalls him in the final act of the film works purely because Depp plays it for all he's worth, with a laugh-in-the-face-of-terror aplomb that manages to balance tragedy against the tongue-in-cheek with real skill and wit.

Dafoe's Barillo is the picture of snake-eyed malevolence, Rubén Blades is suitably hard-bitten as a retired FBI officer out for revenge, and Eva Mendes plays it cool and sexy as Sands' double-crossing partner. But the real star turn comes from Mickey Rourke as Billy, a con on the run who's holed up with Barillo, tired now of hiding, ready to meet his fate. Gently clutching a chihuahua in all his scenes, he's all worn-out smiles and reluctant sighs, eyes full of regret and a head full of sorrow. It's the latest in a series of small but memorable cameos that Rourke's made recently in movies like Sean Penn's The Pledge and Steve Buscemi's Animal Factory which mark his gradual movie rehabilitation. Later this year, he gets his first decent leading role for a decade as a methamphetamine cook in white-trash classic Spun.

Rodriguez's film isn't without faults. Dafoe inexplicably disappears halfway through, Banderas gets marginalised by the many colourful additions to the Mariachi universe, and there's no one quite as ferociously ugly as Jack Elam in the cast, though Danny Trejo comes a close second. Of course, it's nowhere near as indispensable as Leone's classic—but it has a tremendous sense of fun and barely stops moving long enough to draw breath. Rodriguez loves his big, explosive set-pieces, and you just have to sit back and admire the tirelessly inventive manner in which he disposes of the bad guys.

Lock and load, muchachos. Vaya con dios.

Rating: 4 / 10


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