Luigi is the man. The green-capped, younger brother of Mario—as well as the one with the far more luxuriant mustache—jumps higher, runs faster, and looks plain cooler while doing it. This is a truth that’s universally acknowledged by gamers of a certain age. For if you were a younger sibling growing up sometime in the ‘90s or late ‘80s, you were always Player 2. You were always Luigi.
I was one such player, the kid brother of a sister who adored Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES. There were thus many an afternoon spent waiting for my turn to play as the Italian plumber who’s dressed like it’s always St. Patrick’s Day. However, beginning with the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 in 1986, Luigi has low-key been designed as the better character with higher and further leaps, albeit less balance and traction in his landings. And by the time the first Super Smash Bros. game on the N64 rolled around in 1999, The Green One was revealed to be an unlockable character who put Mario to shame. In other words, throughout the ‘90s, one thing became unmistakably clear: Luigi is a goddamn stud.
Perhaps the most vivid example of this, though, came not from a video game or supplemental material Nintendo released in that decade. Rather it stems from the ugly redheaded stepchild of the Mario IP; the dirty little secret that coincidentally is not available on any major U.S. streaming service this week; it’s from the Super Mario Bros. movie of 1993 which Nintendo has seemingly buried.
An undeniable disaster of epic proportions that ruined the careers of its directors Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton in its heyday, as well as a film that star Bob Hoskins said later in life was the greatest regret of his career, Super Mario Bros.’ many, many, MANY problems have taken on an almost mythic infamy.
Yet Luigi’s not one of them.
Actually, the film’s key performances by Hoskins as Mario and John Leguizamo as his much younger brother, Luigi, are just about the only two things that work in Super Mario Bros. ’93. Hoskins, a respected but hard-edged English character actor fresh off his unlikely career pivot into family entertainment via Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and Hook (1991), doesn’t make a single false note as a gruff Italian-American plumber with a thick Brooklyn accent and a mild twinkle in his eye.
But Luigi? He was the cool one. You could tell right from the poster where Luigi has his green baseball cap on backward, while giving the camera a thumb’s up. After all, nothing said “cool kid” in the early ‘90s like a backwards baseball cap!
Portrayed by Leguizamo at the beginning of his career, Luigi is an interesting turning point for the actor. Leguizamo had already appeared in small roles in films like Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989) and Kevin Costner’s bizarrely bleak Revenge (1990), but in ’93 the Latino actor was still an unknown entity in Hollywood, where he’d get cast in stereotypical bit parts like “Liquor Store Gunman” in Regarding Henry (1991). In fact, it was his work on the standup comedy circuit where directors Jankel and Morton noticed Leguizamo, getting a glimpse of the stage charisma that would soon lead to a successful career as a playwright of autobiographical one-man shows, beginning with Mambo Mouth (1991).
While Leguizamo’s performance is still quite rough around the edges in Super Mario Bros., he really is a terrific foil for Hoskins’ measured grump with a heart of gold, providing just enough levity and mischief to the titular characters that the actors walk away with their dignity intact from the movie—which is perhaps more than I can say for Oscar-nominated Dennis Hopper playing President Koopa like ‘80s Donald Trump if he were a dictator (it was embarrassing, but also prophetic?).
Plus, Leguizamo just made Luigi cool. He’s the one who “trusts the fungus” and is always overeager to jump on giant mushrooms like they’re trampolines scattered around the film’s bizarre Blade Runner-like cityscape. He also gets most of the gag lines, apparently improvised by Leguizamo, wears the hover boots (the movie’s version of a raccoon tail or yellow cape from then-recent Mario games), and, hell, he even gets the princess, displaying a real chemistry with Princess Daisy star Samantha Mathis, which apparently carried on off-screen too.
Hoskins brought credibility, Leguizamo accessibility to young viewers. The fact the movie has a bit of a cult following to this day is likely because of this dynamic (plus buckets of nostalgia). Well, that, and perhaps “a mild sensation.”
Indeed, in Leguizamo’s memoir Pimps, Hoes, Playa Hatas, and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends: My Life (2006), Leguizamo revealed that Hoskins took him aside one morning and apologized for “these Brits,” referring to the directors. “Not all English people are like them. He’s a cunt and she’s a cow. Care for a mild sensation?” Leguizamo soon deduced that was Cockney slang for a wild libation. Hoskins and Leguizamo then vanished into the English actor’s trailer for a glass or two of Scotch. It would be the first of many.
After daily drinks, Hoskins would say, “Come on, John, let’s hurry up before I forget what it is I do for a living. I’m not getting any younger. Grab your cobblers, me old china, time to scraper.”
Leguizamo did not affectionately reminisce in that book about Super Mario Bros. He wrote fondly about Hoskins and Mathis, for sure, but when it comes to the film itself, he said, “I hated the movie, I hated what I was doing in it, I hated the whole situation.” Since 2006 his opinion has turned around. Despite the movie’s failures, it was a foot in the door to Hollywood where he’d soon be cast in both dramatic and comedic roles, and as the years have passed Leguizamo’s grown to appreciate the ‘93 movie developed a bit of a cult following. He even defended it in lieu of this year’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie reboot, telling IndieWire in November that “I’m O.G. A lot of people love the original. I did Comic-Con in New York and in Baltimore, and everyone’s like, ‘No, no, we love the old one, the original.’ They’re not feeling the new one. I’m not bitter. It’s unfortunate.”
While that might be true, the new Super Mario Bros. flick takes a page from modern Nintendo games. Ever since Luigi’s Mansion (2001), and more acutely its sequels, Luigi has been reimagined. While he still jumps higher and further than his shorter big bro in games like Super Mario 3D World, he’s often characterized as a putz, a fall-guy, a screw up who is definitely afraid of all ‘em ghosts. And as voiced by Charlie Day in the new movie, he’s so cowardly he barely has any role in the story, essentially becoming the damsel kidnapped by Bowser (Jack Black) while Mario (Chris Pratt) and Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) go on the adventure.
Which is a fair enough revision, but for gamers of a certain age who grew up with an NES or SNES, Leguizamo’s motor-mouthed Luigi in those big lifts will always be the real deal. The cool one in the backwards cap.