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Desperado (Superbit Collection) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 09 October 2001

Desperado (Superbit Collection)

Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: R
starring: Antonio Banderas, Joaquim de Almeida, Salma Hayek, Steve Buscemi, Cheech Marin, Quentin Tarantino
release year: 1995
film rating: Four Stars
sound/picture: Four Stars
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

Some movies become so entrenched in your frame of reference that it’s almost a shock to realize that they haven’t been around all that long. "Desperado" was released 1995 (the copyright on the packaging says 1997; but it’s unclear where some elements have been changed from the theatrical original or whether this is simply an error), but I feel as though I’ve been using it as my over-the-top action gold standard a lot longer. Director/writer/editor Robert Rodriguez, in his second theatrical feature film, has crafted something so insanely energetic and inventive that most other entries in this genre – even the big-budget ones, let alone movies in "Desperado’s" relatively low-budget range – can stand up to the comparison.

"Desperado" is a hoot that illustrates what might have happened if Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah had decided to direct a live-action Road Runner cartoon with a fabulously handsome and well-armed bird, a swell supporting cast, some hysterically cool dialogue and enough firepower to blow away two-and-a-half nations. Throw in a pace that leaves you practically panting on the floor with exhaustion and you’ve perhaps got some idea of the overall experience.

As some folks already know, "Desperado" is the sequel to Rodriguez’s 1993 "El Mariachi" (very entertaining in its own right), a micro-budget Spanish-language release that also mixes comedy and gory action in a tale of an innocent mariachi guitarist (Robert Gallardo) who is mistaken for a notorious hitman and consequently has to learn a whole new set of skills. Although El Mariachi triumphs over the villains, the woman he loves is killed and he is injured in the hand, leaving him heartbroken and unable to play the guitar.

In the English-language "Desperado," Antonio Banderas takes over as El Mariachi (Gallardo turns up as one of the hero’s buddies), who is brooding over his losses and seeking revenge against the drug lord who employed the previous film’s baddies. Confrontations occur, followed by more confrontations, punctuated by a few plot twists and a little romance between El Mariachi and a book store owner (Salma Hayek) so gorgeous that she causes car accidents just by crossing the street.

Rodriguez demonstrates an unabashed love for action traditions, sending them up and celebrating them at the same time. In order to enjoy "Desperado," it is absolutely necessary to be able to accept cartoon violence, as the gunplay is practically incessant. However, despite the similarity in broad strokes, Rodriguez never uses the same gag twice; every predicament is something brand-new, with kinetic fight choreography that holds up deliciously on repeat viewings.

It helps that Banderas, a perfect blend of machismo and vulnerability, moves with such sinuous agility that we can almost buy his prowess at dodging the never-ending barrage of bullets heading his way; that of course nobody could survive what El Mariachi survives is part of what makes "Desperado" so purposefully funny.

The new DVD release of "Desperado" is part of Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment’s Superbit Collection. To quote from the back of the box, "Superbit DVDs utilize a special high bit rate digital transfer process that optimizes video quality … All Superbit DVDs start with high-definition masters and double the bit rate of the original release."

Having previously seen "Desperado" only (albeit repeatedly) on theatre screens, this reviewer cannot compare the Superbit version to previous DVD releases. Visually, the new edition certainly does a deft job of unobtrusively bringing high visibility to some of the dark interiors (much of "Desperado" takes place in dimly-lit, scummy bars), while keeping a handle on the brightness of the sandy Mexico exteriors so that we don’t go blind as the action moves from indoors to outdoors and back again.

The sound, of course, is where the added information is truly noticeable. This is discernible almost immediately – the movie hits the ground running – in Chapter 1, when El Mariachi fires a gun described (understandably) by another character as "a cannon." When the weapon discharges, there is a physical blast from the center and subwoofer that momentarily gives the listener the impression that something the size and heft of a metal shoebox is hurtling across the room. There are also touches of great delicacy, with an exquisitely realistic, subtle and specific gentle "scritch" as a boot grinds out a cigarette. Los Lobos’ score also comes to the fore often, featuring a riff that sounds like a Latin-tinged "Wipeout." Chapter 2, set in a mariachi bar, has fabulous string resonance from the onscreen guitars, with the lead instrument and Banderas’ vocals (the actor does his own singing) in the center and the two backup musicians on either side of him in the mains. There’s an especially nice detail when a lone pair of hands clapping is at first behind us in the left rear, then in the right main when the camera angle is reversed.

Channel 3 features a crying baby heard at a distance down a hallway – the sound is so convincing that apartment dwellers may initially assume this is not part of the soundtrack but rather an unhappy real-life infant neighbor. Chapter 4 has some magnificent crowd surround, with distinct voices on every side of us cheering on a murderous bare-knuckle match. Chapter 7 has another extraordinary gunfight, in which the shots travel the length of the room, with perfect timing between firing in the mains and impact in the rears or vice-versa. Maracas in the right main give saucy rhythm to the action. There is also a fully dimensional car crash that moves through several speakers, all the more impressive because this is a throwaway gag rather than a setpiece.

Chapter 14 once again seems to put us on a real street, with dog barks in the left rear that make us feel as though we’re outdoors, down the block from an annoyed canine, before we get into still more dynamic gunplay, this time interspersed with thudding knife impacts. In Chapter 18, there is pitch-perfect work as El Mariachi strives to reload his gun, just out of sight – and hopefully earshot – of his enemy. The clicks of bullet into chamber and metal touching metal are exactly loud enough to make us wince apprehensively with our hero while still soft enough for it to be plausible that the bad guy doesn’t react. The chapter also features canned mariachi music that is surprisingly scratchy – until we realize we’re hearing it over a radio being carried down the onscreen street.

Chapter 20 features a paradox that will be amusing to action fans but possibly distressing to sticklers for verisimilitude. The gunfire is so room-shakingly intense (once again, with fine directional impact) that when fiery explosions begin, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere for them to go in terms of volume – they are as loud but not louder than the guns. This is not a complaint about any kind of quiet on the part of the explosions – it is instead a compliment to the guns. Chapter 23 has a bullet impact in the left rear, combined with a dropped shell casing a moment later, that is lifelike enough to make the listener jump and look around. Chapter 25 has another massive shootout, this one complete with rocket launchers – like the earlier explosions, they sound just fine but are in danger of being aurally upstaged by the roaring guns.

The downside of the sound on "Desperado" is common to many action films, which is that the dialogue is relatively low in the mix. If the volume is high enough to hear everything being said on screen, the volume on the action scenes is then so high that speakers seem inclined to shake loose from their moorings and neighbors seem inclined to call the cops. If the sound is turned down enough to avoid sharing "Desperado’s" gunplay with everyone in your zip code, you may have to play volume jockey to hear all of the lines.

As the previously-mentioned doubled bit rate takes up the information space on the DVD that is often occupied by extras like audio commentaries and making-ofs, the superbit "Desperado" has no extras whatsoever. Whether or not superbit will overtake regular DVDs ultimately depends on what most consumers want. Most DTS sound, especially on recent releases, is excellent. The doubled bit rate gives it extra oomph, but it’s a matter of personal taste as to whether the additional audio bang is worth going without, say, Rodriguez’s recollections of making the movie (which seem like they’d be pretty darned entertaining). The Superbit format does have a small but welcome design change from other DTS DVDs – the sound set-up allows the viewer to select a sound format and then returns to the main menu without issuing the "Are you sure you’ve got all the equipment to play DTS, if not, turn back now" caution that has adorned many other DTS releases.

Special mention should be made of a killer riff that sounds cousin to Jimi Hendrix’s cover of "All Along the Watchtower." The music, used throughout the film, resolves over the final sequence into Tito & Tarantula’s "Back to the House That Love Built." The driving, snarling guitars and strutting note progressions make you want to run out and buy the soundtrack. The band Los Lobos scored the film and contributed a track or two; there’s also a Dire Straits cut, "Six Blade Knife."

"Desperado" plays like a little boy’s fervent, fever-pitched dream of playing good guys and bad guys, brought to exuberant life. This is essence of shoot-‘em-up action but, unlike most works that want to epitomize their genre, this one has no pretentiousness, just unrelenting energy and fun.

more details
sound format:
English Dolby Digital DTS; English Dolby Digital 5.1
aspect ratio(s):
special features: Scene Selection; English Subtitles; French Subtitles; Spanish Subtitles; Portuguese Subtitles; Chinese Subtitles; Korean Subtitles; Thai Subtitles
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 27-inch Toshiba

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