The most prolific, legendary, influential, successful underground movie actor in North America cinematic history passed away yesterday at age 94. His name was Mario Almada, and he was Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Charles Bronson, Dolemite, and Billy Jack rolled into one grizzled, taciturn, Stetson-wearing, gun-slinging viejo abrón.
Don't believe me? All you have to do is look at his filmography, with some of the greatest sanguinary titles outside of Italian cannibal cinema. Here's just a sampling of the 365 films that IMDB attributes to Almada (but he himself said he acted in over 1,000) over a career that began in earnest when Almada was in his late 40s and didn't end until this year: Cazador de Asesinos (Hunter of Assassins), Debieron Ahorcarlos Antes (They Should've Hung Them Earlier), Todos Hemos Pecado (We've All Sinned), Treinta Segundos Para Morir (30 Seconds to Die), Escape Sangriento (Bloody Escape), Yo El Ejecutor (I, the Executor), Cabalgando con la Muerte (Riding with Death), Tengo Que Matarlos (I Have to Kill Them), El Pistolero del Diablo (The Devil's Gunman), Un Asesinato Perfecto (A Perfect Assassination), Traición con Traición Se Paga (Betrayal Gets Paid with Betrayal), Plomo Caliente (Hot Lead), Tumba Para Dos (A Tomb for Two), No Mataras…y Yo he Matado (Thou Shalt Not Kill…And I've Killed), and—in perhaps the most Mexican-named film ever—Los Hombres no Lloran (Men Don't Cry).
No matter the title, whether hero or anti-hero, lawman or (occasional) villain, a country boy or an urbanite, Almada (usually joined by his brother Fernando) played the same character: a common man pushed by violence to levels of vengeful ultraviolence to wash the world of its sins in a way that made Bronson's Death Wish character seem as vicious as the Cowardly Lion. Sometimes, there were political overtones to his films—critiques of the Drug War, blasts against la migra or the pinche rinches of Texas, cuernos de chivos against corrupt politicians or crime. But really, an Almada opera was an excuse to offer an orchestra of blood, usually backed by the music of the day, whether it was conjunto norteño legends in the 1970s to the latest shitty movimiento alterado of the present day.
Indeed, Almada's connection with music was such that he had a whole subset of films named after famous corridos, from Los Tigres del Norte's La Banda del Carro Rojo and La Camioneta Gris to El Corrido de los Perez and Un Indio Quiere Llora to, most famously, Pistoleros Famosos (Famous Gunslingers), which is not only named after the badass Los Cadetes de Linares song but also features musical performances by them, Carlos y José and Ramón Ayala—even FOX couldn't fit in so many stars in one of their 1940s musicals.
Almada's genre, once known as a chile Western, eventually got deemed narcopelícula (or Mexploitation, for savvy gabacho film buffs) and helped to create narcoculture; his outsider box-office success upended the Mexican film industry, which ditched the pastoral fantasy and charros of La Época de Oro to match the narcopelícula's bleak-but-realistic worldview. He became a victim of his own success—”I made films of other genres,” he told Mexico City's Excelsior in 1989, “and they weren't successful; people didn't go see them. They prefer action and that's sustained the industry”—but cried all the way to the bank: More than just an actor, Almada was also auteur, nearly always played a role behind the scenes as financier, writer, producer, advisor or others and adapting quickly to technology so that most of the films in his final decades were direct-to-video (the so-called videohomes) and found distribution online.
They weren't pretty films, and even the best were ridiculously over the top. Almada's popularity was dismissed in polite and academic circles, who couldn't understand why the working class adored him—typical of the latter was David Maciel, a Chicano Studies professor who wrote in 1990 of Almada's Siete en la Mira (Seven for Target) which broke Mexican box office records when released, that “given the lack of artistic merits, serious acting, or believable or interesting dialogue, the success of this film is surprising and disappointing,” chockablock with “violent acts seldom ever witnessed on the screen.” (homeboy obviously never watched Faces of Death, or even A Clockwork Orange).
And Almada was a completely unknown figure to American viewers save for the thousands of newspaper clippings in the American Southwest over the decades featuring local movie or television listings. The only interview with the English-language media I could remember was one Almada gave to VICE back in 2009, in which his most memorable line was that he had played everything “except for joto. Not that. If I played that, it wouldn’t even be believable.” I can't find a single profile in Lexis-Nexis ever written about him, although he gets a whole chapter in last year's Narco Cinema: Sex, Drugs and Banda Music in Mexico's B-Filmography, an academic book that costs a whopping $95, so you tell me what it says, sale?
Their loss; much like the ignorance of Mexican music legend Jenni Rivera during her life, the press and professors alike lost out on a fascinating, influential cultural giant that the Mexican press is already calling Mexico's biggest-ever box-office draw. His weren't my favorite films, but you had to give respeto to them, for their singular vision. Almada has always been cult, is a notorious childhood memory for millions of Mexican-Americans (raise your hand if your parents didn't flinch while Almada and his pals were mowing down others but immediately covered your eyes the moment any chichis or nalgas appeared on screen), and built a career no one will ever match again.
So let's give Almada the final word with one of the most apropos, self-knowing quotes any actor has ever given: “My guns,” he memorably told an auditorium full of Mexican movie royalty when he received a Ariel lifetime achievement award in 2013, “never run out of bullets.”