"Desperado" is a wildly violent, visually arresting effort, which strives for the kind of balletic bloodbath at which Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone excelled in their prime.

And for the first half, young writer-director Robert Rodriguez is fairly successful, with an elaborate musical sequence that opens the film, closeups of faces that are etched with character, humor that is self-assured, smart-alecky and intentionally over the top . . . it almost seems as if he will fulfill the promise of his first film, the ridiculously low-budget "El Mariachi." ("Desperado" is sort of a sequel/sort of a remake of that film.)

Antonio Banderas, oozing sensuality and charm, is the mariachi, a gun-toting musician whose guitar-case holds a small arsenal. The extremely thin plot has him seeking revenge on the drug dealers responsible for the death of his wife.

As Banderas stalks his prey in the dregs of a small Mexican border town, Rodriguez dishes up some deliciously dark and ugly satire, as we meet a variety of goofy/nasty supporting players (Cheech Marin, Steve Buscemi and Quentin Tarantino are the most memorable; sultry Salma Hayek, who becomes the mariachi's love-interest, and chief villain Joaquim de Almeida are also good).

But then, around the halfway or two-thirds mark, the bloody killings become far too redundant, the best supporting characters are gone and Rodriguez rapidly runs out of fresh ideas (despite the late appearance of a couple of mariachis whose guitar cases convert to a machine gun and a rocket-launcher, respectively). He also throws in an 11th-hour twist that seems to come out of left field.

"Desperado" is rated R for considerable violence, blood and gore, profanity, vulgarity, sex and nudity.