Along with Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez was largely responsible for the independent cinema explosion of the '90s. He's since moved on to bigger projects--From Dusk Till Dawn, The Faculty, and the Spy Kids series--but Rodriguez maintains his DIY cred by doing everything in nearly all of his films: he writes, directs, shoots, edits, and even scores. That level of dedication and ingenuity is best exemplified in his pulpy "Mariachi Trilogy."
- El Mariachi (1992)--Infamously and ingeniously made for $7,000, this Sundance hit follows a mariachi (Carlos Gallardo) whose guitar case is swapped with one containing an arsenal of firearms. Soon, he's drawn into a mess of violent entanglements with a local drug lord, and via some astonishing set pieces, El Mariachi expertly covers comedy, drama, and action before ending at a surprisingly complex and involving conclusion.
- Desperado (1995)--Rodriguez was offered $7 million for a remake/sequel to El Mariachi, and the result was a broader scope and a darker tone, with a recast El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) teaming up with a very doable Salma Hayek. Besides appearances from Steve Buscemi and Quentin Tarantino, what did the $7 million get Rodriguez? Um...bigger explosions, mostly, and two really amazing shootouts. (Both take place in bars, and thanks to Rodriguez' keen eye, both are some of the raddest action scenes ever put on film.)
- Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)--Rodriguez juggles three main characters (Banderas' El Mariachi, Johnny Depp's crazy-as-shit CIA agent, and Rubén Blades' retired FBI agent), all of whom somehow relate to Willem Dafoe's bad guy. Mexico was poorly received for its simple-yet-bewildering plot, but it also has its good points--shot digitally, the film looks gorgeous, Depp's performance is a blast, and Rodriguez was freed financially to the extent that his action sequences know no limits. (Whether that's a good or a bad thing is a matter of taste; regardless, Rodriguez' balls out, self-effacing excess will always trump the boring shit that's churned out in most action flicks.) ERIK HENRIKSEN