Director Robert Rodriguez’s first feature film spawned an entire trilogy, along with Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and set him on the path to Hollywood success. El Mariachi is an ultra low-budget ($7,000) action film that took a healthy $2m at the box office. Rodriguez raised the funds for the film by participating in clinical trials and saved money by using non-actors in certain roles with the promise of a small amount of fame rather than actual payment.
In a small Mexican town, a ruthless criminal called Azul breaks out of jail vowing revenge on a local drug lord Moco. Meanwhile El Mariachi (Carlos Gallardo) comes to town in search of work, carrying nothing but his guitar case with his trademark guitar. The drug lord sends hitmen to kill the criminal Moco, but they mistake El Mariachi for him, resulting in him killing four of them in self-defense. He takes refuge in a local bar and falls in love with the owner, only to discover that her business is financed by Moco.
Rodriguez’s ability to direct is starkly brought to centre stage because of the complete lack of funds available to him. Yet he deftly manages to create tension and exhilarating action scenes simply by the quick-cut nature of his editing. El Mariachi could have been made with any budget (as Desperado would later prove), but there’s something inherently gritty about the lack of budget. It brings a level of realism to the film that would’ve been lost with bigger stars, more money and bigger set-piece action scenes (see Once Upon a Time in Mexico).
El Mariachi was important not only as it launched the career of Rodriguez who has gone on to fame in Hollywood, but it also started the independent film boom of the early 1990s. Other filmmakers with a showstring budget followed his example and Indy films constituted about half of Hollywood’s production during this time, including the likes of Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Cut together with gusto and verve and consisting of some tight scripting and exciting and tense action scenes, El Mariachi is one the most impressive debut features from an up-and-coming director of all time.