FILM / For a few dollars less: El Mariachi (15); Laws of Gravity (18); QBY: Hot Shots] Part Deux (12); Lake Consequence (18)

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The Independent Culture
ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ'S first film, El Mariachi (15), will go down in movie history for thrift but also for quality. It was made for dollars 7,000. That's probably less than the bill for Arnold Schwarzenegger's cigars on The Last Action Hero. Rodriguez's name will stick with you long after the film as one for the future. And not just because it comes so often in the credits: producer, director, writer, photographer, special effects, music editing, even stills. In a world of waste, Rodriguez has thrived on frugality. In America, this one-man bandit has run off with dollars 1.5m at the box office.

The miracle is not the money, but the movie: a taut, ingenious thriller of mistaken identity, with a dry, doomy wit, and shot by a camera that, like the lead character, is constantly on the run. Carlos Gallardo, a childhood friend of Rodriguez, plays a travelling musician (the mariachi) who enters a no-horse, futuristic desert town - a little like the barren setting of Mad Max - clutching his cased-up guitar and a feeling that this might be his lucky spot. The feeling proves wrong and the guitar nearly costs him his life when it gets him confused with a hood (Reinol Martinez) also clad in black, his case full of guns. The plot has an elemental simplicity: the struggle between good and evil and the difficulty of telling them apart.

The film was made in Spanish, aimed at the Mexican video market. There are subtitles, but you could follow the story through the pictures alone. Rodriguez, 23, grew up making short video action movies and seems a master image-minter even before his career has started. Before the credits, he sparely sets up the story and hooks the eye: a white van stirring the dust as it hits town; a capo's plaything in blue bikini; the mean face of the hood and the clang of a spanner against his prison bars. The hood kills the capo's men; we hear their death throes over a poolside phone - a tinny squeal.

Rodriguez's shots are crisp and startling without being flashy. Other young film-makers could have come up with the close-up of a comb being slid through the capo's wet hair. But Rodriguez works it into his scheme as an edgy interlude from the chase and a comment on the pampered capo, whose sleek menace contrasts throughout with the hood's coarse brutality. It also links into the next scene where the mariachi's hair is lathered by a barmaid (Consuelo Gomez) - later lover - hiding a razor in her hand.

Comparisons have been made to spaghetti westerns, but El Mariachi is more subtle, less lazily brutal. Rodriguez belies his budget with smart action sequences - the mariachi swinging by overhead cable on to a passing car - but he checks the mayhem with irony. Villainous machismo topples into parody, and the nightmare is laced with humour, as when the mariachi dreams a child bouncing a ball on the dusty roadside: gently at first until the bounce becomes an ominous thud and the ball a severed head resting at the mariachi's feet. This macabre wit flirts with the surreal in meetings with a highway turtle and a hotel pit bull terrier: the animals seem sane next to the helter-skelter of humanity.

There are signs of skimping but more often being hard-up ups the invention. The violence has a charming freshness and there's a serendipity that bigger movies miss, details like the man by the road with a block of ice to chill coconuts. The performances are rough-hewn and eager to please; the actors like friends in home movies. As the capo, Peter Martinez is gloriously over the top, with a lean, coiled menace and stagey cackle. If the film fails to deliver a gripping denouement, it still does enough to shame its bloated Hollywood brethren.

Made for dollars 35,000, Laws of Gravity (18) is almost as trim as El Mariachi, but not so tartly enticing. A portrait of a bunch of Brooklyn hoodlums and their girls - drifting through shoplifting, jail and firearms - it takes homage to Mean Streets to the point of plagiarism. Adam Trese's Jon is a chip off De Niro's blockhead Johnny Boy: the same sensitivity swallowed in simmering aggression. As a De Niro impression it gets seven out of ten, lacking true pathos and danger. Peter Greene is stronger as his mate, Jimmy (the Harvey Keitel role), weary of the hassle but touchingly loyal. Better still are the girlfriends, funnier and smarter than the guys pinning them down.

Scorsese is a great filmmaker, but maybe not a great model: it's hard to fake his infectious energy. The guys in Laws of Gravity seem buzzed up to explode. They are never still like normal people. The eye grows weary, especially as Gomez specialises in greedy, voyeuristic close-ups. The dead-end naturalistic speech also grates. His vision of a world weighed down almost by force of nature is powerful. He hasn't quite found his own voice to express it.

You probably know by now whether the humour of Jim Abrahams - guiding jester behind such gag-fests as Airplane] - is to your taste. His Hot Shots] Part Deux (12) is the same again: movie spoofs, sub-Stoppardian wordplay and a feel for comic bathos. The wonderful Lloyd Bridges returns as Tug Benson, his numbskull now in the only office worthy of it, the President's. Charlie Sheen, Tom Cruise with beef, is the young blade given a mission impossible: to repair Tug's cack-handling of the Middle East crisis ('Now we have to go in to get the men who went to get the men who went to get the men'). Abrahams' humour is about instant fun, punning and parodying its hour upon the screen, signifying nothing. It's as airy and intoxicating as laughing gas.

Lake Consequence (18) is beyond parody, rarely rising above the risible. Joan Severance plays a frustrated housewife stirred at the sight of a gardener (Billy Zane) wielding a huge tool - an electric saw. The imagery gets no subtler as Joan is trapped in Billy's trailer, and whisked to the limpid lake where he hangs out with a skinny-dipping nymphet. It all reaches its several climaxes in a Turkish bath. The scene speaks for the whole: plenty of steam, but no charge or feeling.

Cinema times: Review, page 62.