Robert Rodriguez is the godfather of Mexican-American indie films; a man who never ceases to amaze cult audiences and mainstream audiences alike with what wonders he can achieve with small budgets. A man who is 100% passionate about his films, and film in general, and it really shows. It says a lot about a filmmaker who wants to do as much as he can in the production of his films, and Rodriguez really gives himself a lot to do, often being the writer, director, composer and editor of his flicks, and the results are almost always dazzling with indie charm. He’s got quite a sizeable filmography stretching from his first feature, El Mariachi, in 1993, to this year’s imminent Sin City sequel. Here’s a guide to help all you beginners get started with him.
Start With: Desperado
Although far from my favourite Rodriguez flick, I feel that Desperado is as good a place as any to introduce new fans to the his world. The film is strictly a sequel in Rodriguez’s “Mexico” trilogy, but it serves actually more like an English-language remake of his first feature film, El Mariachi (which was filmed in Spanish). An obvious difference is the language, making this film infinitely more accessible to wider audiences already, but the main difference is budget. The original was made on a shoestring budget of just $7,000, while Desperado upped that amount ten-fold! This budget allowed Rodriguez to stay true to his cultural roots and keep the film as “Mexican” as possible, and gave him an interesting cast including Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek and Steve Buscemi. The plot follows Banderas as El Mariachi (The Guitarist) who seeks revenge on the drug lord who killed his lover. It’s balls-to-the-wall action, hilarious and an excellent first taste of Rodriguez’s wild style.
Then move onto The Essentials:
From Dusk Till Dawn
From Dusk Till Dawn is a beast of an indie film, and had cult status written all over it from the get-go, with the dream team of indie golden boys Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, the first fruits of what would soon become a long term partnership. QT penned the script that, for the first half at least, feels classically Tarantino. But it’s the back end where things a very left turn indeed, and it feels tenfold more like a romping Rodriguez flick. The film is American-made, but again maintains Rodriguez’s Mexicano vibes, and stars a bizarre-but-brilliant cast including Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis and the two most unlikely brothers in film history, George Clooney and QT himself. It’s a gangster-cum-Mexican vampire flick, and if it sounds nuts, it’s because it is. A ’90s classic.
Sin City is probably Rodriguez’s most mainstream adult-oriented film to date, and he tried something very new with it. The source material for this one isn’t his own, and he shares co-directing duties with author of the cult graphic novel Frank Miller (with one scene shot by Quentin Tarantino), but the resulting film is something truly awe-inspiring. It can be classified as a neo-noir crime action thriller anthology film, which is a total mouthful, but totally brilliant. The decision to stylize the film as close as possible to the source is totally unique and inspired, and the film is slick, funny, violent and super cool. A must-see for film fans.
A personal favourite of mine is 2007’s Planet Terror, one half of RR and QT’s double feature throwback to ’70s exploitation movies, Grindhouse. Compared to Tarantino’s contribution Death Proof, Planet Terror performed quite poorly in the box office, but it’s a cult horror fan’s wet dream. Rodriguez’s segment is certainly the stronger of the two, and the more fun. It’s a zombie film that feels like it so perfectly belongs in the era it’s paying homage to (film scratches and all) but has a self-awareness that makes it feel very modern at the same time. It is an utterly hilarious and gory, fast-paced flick chocked full of guts and one-liners. Any movie in which Bruce Willis claims to have killed Osama Bin Laden is an instant classic in my books.
If you liked those, move onto:
Obviously if you liked Desperado, the film that started it all will be to your taste as well. As previously mentioned, El Mariachi was Rodriguez’s first feature film, had to deal with a tiny budget, and employed a mostly amateur cast. Although the film was originally just intended for VHS, Columbia picked it up, and eventually spent several times more than the original budget on 16-to-35 mm transfers, promotion, marketing and distribution. The film won multiple awards and put Rodriguez’s name on the map, allowing him to produce the sort of films he wanted to make with more money in the future. If you like indie films and don’t mind subtitles (or understand Spanish), give this a watch and see how much can be accomplished with hard work and inspiration.
Once Upon A Time In Mexico
The final installment in RR’s “Mexico” trilogy is the biggest, boldest and most successful in the series. It ups the budget of the previous instalments considerably, and has an impressive cast including Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke, Willem Dafoe, and Rodriguez regulars Salma Hayek, Danny Trejo and Antonio Banderas. The film maintains similar vibes to Desperado, but is definitely a bit of a mismatched affair. It is however totally packed to the brim with awesome action sequences and when it’s on form, it’s a lot of fun.
What started out as one of a number of fake trailers which preceded Planet Terror, the idea of Machete was so popular with film fans that Rodriguez couldn’t resist turning it into a feature film. The trailer promised everything you could want, with “Action. Suspense. Emotion.” and was brilliant crafted to feel (just like Planet Terror) like something straight out of the VHS bargain bin. The film had a lot to live up to, and as it turned out, too much, but it’s still a crazy amount of fun, with leading man Danny Trejo knocking it out of the park with a hilariously serious performance in a film that’s anything put. The cast is batcrap crazy (just look it up for yourself, the list is too long) and just about everything in the script is too. The promised sequel, Machete Kills was out last year and looks like more of the same, but I’ve yet to get around to it myself.
Something A Bit Different:
Four Room is an anthology film from 1994 with four segments, directed separately by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino. As expected with so many cooks around the broth, it’s a bit of an inconsistent flick, with the tone feeling both a bit too silly or serious at times and never really striking the right balance. Rodriguez’s segment, entitled “The Misbehavers”, is certainly one of the better of the four, in which two kids are left in a hotel room while their parents go out, and they, well…misbehave. It’s ridiculous, but it’s not bad.
The Faculty is another of Rodriguez’s films that feels a bit out of place among his filmography. That being said, it’s actually a decent sci-fi horror flick, penned by Scream writer Kevin Williamson (who I think is rather brilliant) and it’s perhaps RR’s most “American” film to date. Set in a high school where aliens start popping up, it delivers nothing truly original, but is still a nice little b-movie. The cast is cool too, with Josh Hartnett, Clean DuVall and Elijah Wood.
For The Kids:
Rodriguez is a father of five kids (named, I shit you not, Rebel, Racer, Rocket, Rogue and Rhiannon), and he claims they’re the reason he’s made so many kids films, alongside his violent gangster pictures. The ones I’ve actually seen are few and far between. The Adventures Of Shark Boy and Lava Girl is not really for me (Editor’s note: It’s a genuine contender for the worst film I’ve ever seen), whilst Shorts seems fun, but I never got around to it. Spy Kids is the most well-known and loved franchise he’s done and I have seen the first three of the four films. My honest opinion: the first is great, the second is watchable and the third is tripe. Make of that what you will.
Keep an eye out for:
Sin City : A Dame To Kill For
Rodriguez and Miller are back this year, finally delivering the long-awaited sequel to Sin City, nine long years after the original. A lot of the cast are back, and the new additions - Eva Green, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin and Lady Gaga - are brilliant. The source material is excellent too, so there’s big expectations for this one.