In the mood for a classic thriller offering high-octane action sequences and a gripping narrative? Consider Desperado, the 90’s film streaming now on Netflix, captivating audiences today as much as it did almost thirty years ago. Directed by Robert Rodriguez, the 1995 film is actually a sequel to his low-budget success story, El Mariachi, which premiered in 1992.
Unmistakably, the movie translates to an enjoyable blend of action, emotion, suspense, and Rodriguez’s unique sensibility—mixing near-campy elements with striking action mastery. All of which is effectively set amidst the dusty, almost allegorical Mexican backdrop. At bottom, the narrative is a classic meditation on revenge, layered with intricate subplots and character arcs elevating the film beyond the scope of a typical action movie.
Desperado begins with and centers around the tale of El Mariachi (portrayed iconically by Antonio Banderas), a former musician turned vengeful vigilante. Unstoppably, the lone gunman seeks Bucho (played by Joaquim de Almeida), a ruthless, powerful drug lord responsible for the murder of El Mariachi’s lover and the ruination of his life. El Mariachi develops into a feared, legendary figure in the criminal underworld as armed with his guitar case full of guns—the visual most fans remember from the film—he pursues justice.
As the body count rises, El Mariachi/Banderas encounters Carolina (the beautiful and talented Salma Hayek), a local bookstore owner. Evolving into the desperado’s ally and love interest, the bookseller contributes a softer dimension to El Mariachi’s hardened exterior. Meanwhile, the gun-toting guitar player contends with Bucho’s deadly henchmen—while also grappling with the moral implications of his quest for vengeance, a journey worsening the outlaw’s inner demons.
The stylish and over-the-top action sequences enrich the movie and partially explain why it’s such a classic. A blend of traditional western shootouts and modern action choreography, these scenes are accompanied by a captivating, signature soundtrack adding extra intensity and rhythm to the film’s pace. More than a mere spectacle, Desperado’s non-stop action serves as a narrative device reflecting El Mariachi’s internal conflict.
Another of the film’s assets is its stellar cast. In addition to those mentioned above, look out for the wonderful Steve Buscemi, Cheech Marin of “Cheech and Chong” fame, Quentin Tarantino (yes, that’s right), and the unmistakable Danny Trejo as Navajas, a terrifying hitman dispatched to kill El Mariachi and mistakenly hilled by the outlaw’s rivals.
It’s interesting to note that the 1995 thriller now streaming on Netflix encountered serious challenges securing an R rating (instead of the NC-17 rating it initially received). The Motion Picture Association of America was not exactly open to Desperado, recoiling at its incredibly graphic, violent content, and initially assigned it a rating certain to limit its audience. To appease the MPAA, the film was substantially trimmed and edited.
Notable scenes, entailing the deaths of the characters played by Quentin Tarantino and Danny Trejo, were reduced radically in intensity. The film’s most significant alteration pertained to its climax—a drawn-out gunfight involving El Mariachi, Carolina, and the principal antagonist, Bucho. The MPAA was so demanding in their insistence on less violent content that Rodriguez eventually cut the sequence entirely.
The uncut version of Desperado also featured a memorable, albeit controversial piece of weaponry, the “codpiece gun,” which ultimately did not make the film’s final cut. This… imaginative weapon was initially wielded by El Mariachi during an intense bar shootout and was also slated to feature comically in a romantic scene between Banderas and Carolina. While the codpiece gun was inevitably omitted from the film, it still found its way to the director’s later films: From Dusk till Dawn and Machete Kills.
The film’s unique musical score, a mixture of Chicano rock and traditional ranchera music composed and performed by Los Lobos, also deserves note. Indeed, Desperado’s score engenders much of the film’s signature ambiance. Los Lobos’s “Mariachi Suite” earned a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance at the 1995 Grammy Awards. Groups like Dire Straits, Link Wray, Latin Playboys, and Carlos Santana also contributed to the soundtrack.
The film received mixed-to-positive reviews from critics and holds a 69% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Experts enjoyed Antonio Banderas’s charismatic performance, while some critics panned a perceived lack of depth in story and character development. Financially, the film earned $25.4 million in the United States and Canada and $58 million worldwide.
For an action classic sure to satisfy, stream Desperado today.