The Tamale Western has Spurs
that Jingle-Jangle-Jingle Against Drug Cartel Terrorism
by Kandel G. Eaton
Once Upon A Time in Mexico is the latest Mariachi "flick"
from writer/director Robert Rodriguez. El Mariachi is an outlaw
legend, similar to Clint Eastwood's "spaghetti westerns"
made in Italy during the sixties. The "Tamale Western"
is the latest mythological incarnation of the cowboy tradition
and its heroic sense of justice.
More so than its prequels, El Mariachi and Desperado,
Rodriguez has created this new genre to great box office success,
with others likely to follow. The film is easy to relate to because
its Western genre, which has been a favorite audience topic for
This Wild West is
not filled with a band of disgusting outlaws, but a drug cartel,
led by Barillo, (played by Willem Dafoe) who has planned a coup
against the Mexican El Presidente (played by Pedro Armendariz,
Jr.) and wants to install El Mariachi's nemesis General Marquez
(played by Gerardo Vigil), to protect his cartel. He leaves him
to find a $20 million payment to seal the deal when El Presidente
is killed. As is the cowboy hero tradition, no judges or lawyers
are players, El Mariachi is the only justice around.
The town good guy sheriff is CIA agent Sands (played by Johnny
Depp), and our outlaw hero is musician El Mariachi (played by
Antonio Banderas). El Mariachi walks everywhere with his guitar,
which doubles as a holster for automatic weapons. No cowboy ever
loved his horse as much as El Mariachi loves his guitar. He is
hired by Sands to kill General Marquez, so the CIA can have a
coup of their own, to install their guy as the new El Presidente
and payoff El Mariachi and his men with Barillo's $20 million,
The reminisces of El Mariachi vs. General Marquez include awesome
stunts and terrific photography. The tone is modern day with
cell phones, traffic and heavy artillery. The dirt roads and
town frontages remain. Though the saloon shoot outs involve killing
the cook over a pork dinner, the street shoot 'em ups are as
confrontational as any Western can get. The vivid colors bespeak
cowboys, Indians, cavalry, and the open range rescues which are
Being set in modern Mexico, though, there are no skyscrapers,
helicopters, or computers clicking to further confuse things,
either. Our cowboy hero is bilingual, and the subtitles serve
as well as any stagecoach or train, moving the film along.
Evolving through all this angst and turmoil the movie finds a
higher purpose: LIBRE. Freedom for the people from corruption
and drug cartels, and, again implied, from the U.S.A. via CIA
agent Sands and a retired Mexican FBI agent (played by Ruben
Blades). El Mariachi and his partners have their own agendas,
which evolve from greed and revenge.
These encounters give humor and interest, along with terror and
gore, which balances the film nicely. El Mariachi has a personal
score to settle with General Marquez, which was the initial reason
he agreed to help the CIA.Both purposes are resolved when El
Mariachi retrieves his dead wife's necklace from the dead General
This Tamale Western's roots show how modern times and borders
have changed the Western genre. As is implied in the subtitles,
freedom is not a simple wish. It is a complicated, violent process.
The betrayals portrayed are more themes of miscalculation. El
Mariachi kills the General selfishly and ardently, but only becomes
a hero when he sees fighting against the army in the streets
by the people, and saves El Presidente, along with his country.
True to form El Mariachi can walk away, his men taking some of
the money and the rest being showered on the people, the cartel,
the general and his army, and the CIA, all but defeated. As traditions
yons, El Mariachi is without injury. And at the end, El Mariachi
doesn't turn his back on us. His guitar destroyed, his spurs
jingle-jangle down the road alone, facing us, kissing the Mexican
flag he wears as his reward, for having won simple freedom.
Posted September 24, 2003