EL MARIACHI (2014) – This Mexican television series directed by Salvador Cartas was loosely based on the 1992 Robert Rodriguez movie of the same name and its sequels, Desperado (1995) and Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003). It’s no secret that Rodriguez himself is not fond of this series. According to some sources Sony allegedly made a tentative notification of their plans to the writer/ director and then ran with it without further input from him.
Regular readers of Balladeer’s Blog know how much I love and praise the original El Mariachi movies. The title character, who starts out the trilogy as a struggling mariachi guitar player who winds up having to go all Die Hard on Mexican drug cartels, was played by Carlos Gallardo in 1992 and then Antonio Banderas in 1995 and 2003.
The series of movies certainly seemed to partially inspire the later Sicario films, but I much prefer Rodriguez’s flicks. The El Mariachi television program is, unfortunately, inferior to both franchises. That’s a shame because lead actor Ivan Arana certainly looks the part and Martha Higareda as the hero’s love interest Celeste is just the right mix of sultriness and butt-kicking badness. For some reason photos of Higareda don’t come close to capturing her full allure, but seen in motion she’s even more impressive.
Like in the Robert Rodriguez films, the up and coming mariachi player is mistaken for a Mexican criminal who is carrying a similar guitar case. From there he gets caught up in a battle with Mexico’s ever more powerful drug cartels.
It’s tragic how in real life those cartels, which were already cementing their powerbase in Mexico when the Mariachi trilogy was made, have gained more and more power to the point that parts of Mexico have become a virtual narco-state. Daily news reports feature the latest violence from the cartels against innocent bystanders, politicians, police and reporters, as well as against their criminal rivals.
To me, that real life horror helped make the three Rodriguez films special. El Mariachi was fighting against real-world villains who were genuinely at large and preying on victims as the movies were hitting screens. It added a touch of World War Two “root for the hero” atmosphere as the black-clad hombre wiped out drug lords in place of Nazis.
Unfortunately, in real life the cartels have apparently won.
At any rate, that opening case of mistaken identity is basically the only similarity that the television series shares with the movies. Ivan Arana’s El Mariachi doesn’t tote around a guitar case loaded with weaponry as well as a gadget-laden mariachi guitar like he’s a latter-day Sartana. Instead, the small-screen version of the character winds up framed for murder and goes undercover to clear his name and bring down his drug lord enemies.
In the film trilogy El Mariachi fought ever-higher cartel figures, ranging from locals, on to his long-lost brother and finally on to cartel masters so powerful they had Mexican military and government personnel in their pockets. Everything came to a satisfying, apocalyptic finale in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, as the cartels moved on from driving their Colombian rivals out of the country and were now poised to launch a military coup in Mexico. And El Mariachi wasn’t having it.
No such stakes in the television series, however. It’s more like a police procedural crossed with the old David Jansen series The Fugitive. I can’t even compare this televised El Mariachi to Lorenzo Lamas’ Renegade because Lamas’ show had a lot more action. Arana and his costars mostly talk.
I’m afraid that where the Rodriguez films centered around gunplay and magnificently mounted action set pieces this Mexican series is more like a soap opera. It was even shown five days a week when it first aired from March 10th, 2014 to its grand finale in mid-June of that year, hence the large number of episodes for a one season series.
I didn’t go into El Mariachi: The Series expecting anything rivalling the movies for action or budget, but even mid-level shows like the new Hawaii Five-O feature much more action than this disappointing venture.
With all that said, let’s look at some of the positives. As I mentioned above, Ivan Arana looks thoroughly badass in the jacket and mariachi player pants. Wielding his guns, playing his instrument and toting his guitar case he appears as deadly and menacing as many Spaghetti Western heroes, like the aforementioned Sartana.
He just doesn’t get to do all that much. In fact, the first episode features our hero and the villains drawing their cell-phones much more often than their guns. Arana’s Martin Aguirre is too passive early on, too. The synopsis for that debut episode should read “A mariachi player walks from place to place and from room to room getting yelled at and threatened by everyone he meets.”
Back to something positive, Martha Higareda capably portrays Celeste, a different character than Domino (Consuelo Gomez) or Carolina (Salma Hayek) from the movies. But she DOES look impressive wielding blades like Carolina did.
While waitressing at her father’s bar, Celeste falls in love with Martin, bowled over by his good looks, his guitar skills and his singing. (There are thirteen original songs scattered throughout the seventy-one episodes.)
The BEST thing about this show would be the location filming. Some of the most beautiful parts of Mexico serve as a backdrop to El Mariachi. Somehow even shots of a scorpion scuttling across some railroad tracks in the middle of the desert manage to look breath-taking. And not just the exteriors, but the prisons and ghettos and outlaw dive bars feel dangerous and authentic to behold.
A few times – a VERY few times – the production comes close to capturing the poignant aspect of the main character from the 1992 film. El Mariachi is a talented, driven young man whose abilities could make him successful if not for the crime and poverty of his surroundings. Just to survive he must kill or be killed, eat or be eaten as his dreams of a career in music and a better life seem ever further away.
This saga of a hunted man caught between the law and some powerful criminals also aired on RCN in Colombia from December 19th, 2017 to the opening third of March, 2018.
There are certainly appealing aspects of this television project. It’s great to look at in every way and if you don’t mind an El Mariachi story that’s more soap opera than action epic you would probably enjoy it.
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