Once Upon A Time In Mexico

Johnny Depp excels in this enjoyably daft bulletfest despite the messy plot.

Released in 2003, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 23 Sep 2003 by Scott Morris
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Robert Rodriguez seemingly came out of nowhere with his first full length feature El Mariachi in 1992, an astonishing film that borrowed some of John Woo's ballistic excess on an absolute shoestring and remains a great achievement today. Patronage from the then doyenne of Hollywood directors Quentin Tarantino no doubt helped convince Columbia to pony up the dough for a big budget sequel that almost felt like a re-telling given the change of actor as Mr. Mariachi, now Antonio Banderas (technically the brother of the first film's Mariachi out for revenge after his killing, if memory serves but it was never really an important consideration) and the host of celebrity cameos. Still a very enjoyable film, although perhaps by it's 1995 release some of the novelty was wearing off.

After keeping himself largely busy with the Spy Kids franchise we at theOneliner.com were certainly a little pleased at the news he'd be finishing off the Mariachi series with this effort, Once Upon A Time In Mexico. In the intervening time, the heroic bloodshed genre which the series probably most closely fits into has died utterly, it's patriarch now settling into a Hollywood rhythm of conventionality and no successor appearing to take Woo's mantle. The question we had to ask ourselves was what has Rodriguez done to keep the series fresh, and what's he been planning in the last eight years?

The answer, it seems was to respond to criticisms of the perceived lack of plot in the first two movies by patching on a ridiculously convoluted set up to the gun fights involving six separate parties being manipulated by psychotic and corrupt C.I.A. Agent Sands (Johnny Depp) and his fine prosthetic arm. While it's hardly the most labyrinthine conspiracy ever committed to the silver screen it feels as though it's desperately slapping elements onto the simple revenge themes used in the earlier films that almost but never quite gel together. We can be thankful however that Rodriguez hadn't lost his flair for action which stops most criticism, even if it is swinging dangerously towards Tom & Jerry violence.

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First a little hero worship; Johnny Depp rules all. I'd never been terribly bothered about him until his great performance in Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas and while he's been in some utterly forgettable films since, his virtuoso display in Pirates Of The Caribbean where he absolutely nails the deranged character of Jack Sparrow that makes it a joy to watch. He's just as captivating here as the dodgy C.I.A operative Sands, although he doesn't dominate the film to the same extent. Sands is devoted to bringing balance to Mexico, and if that involves changing people he doesn't mind doing it, or hiring someone else to. Bullets are cheaper than life here, it would seem, so if his job involves changing people from living to dead he has no qualms with that. While talking with an associate, he remarks that he always orders the same roast pork dish in every dive he enters. He's decided that this dish is too good, so he's going to shoot the chef on his way out to the car. He's also decided that the current President (Pedro Armend?riz) is too good, and he's going to have him disposed.

Common C.I.A. practice? I've no idea, but I'm sure slinking around in T-Shirts proudly proclaiming 'C.I.A.' in 6 inch letters isn't. He's in 'discussions' with El Presidente's Advisor (Julio Oscar Mechoso) to have a coup de etate using the evil General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil)'s army and the insidious leader of a drugs cartel, Barillo (Willem Dafoe). Sands isn't completely mad though, realising that having these two bozos near the reigns of power would tip the balance in an altogether unwanted way he sets in motion a plan to have them disposed of before they've even fired a bullet in anger. Crucial to the plan in the near-mythical El Mariachi (Banderas). Sand's hired muscle Cucuy (Danny Trejo) tracks him down to a small town where Mariachi is playing the guitar and lamenting the loss of his wife Carolina (Salma Hayek) and their daughter, something that we'll see in various flashbacks almost randomly throughout the film. Despite not thinking much of Sands, this little scheme allows him a measure of revenge against the killer of his loved one, Marquez.

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While Mariachi heads off to his old friends and fellow singer/songwriter/shooters Lorenzo and Fideo (Enrique Iglesias and Marco Leonardi respectively) home to pick up his 'special' guitar, Sands has a meeting with a retired F.B.I. agent Jorge (Rub?n Blades). Jorge had been hard on the trail of Barillo and his crew (including Mickey Rourke as Billy, a put-upon henchman full of regret and carrying a horrific little rat-dog Chihuahua) before they scarpered to Mexicos relatively safe haven, and while he's tracked him down to the extent of living in the same town as Barillo he's resigned himself to a quiet life. At least, until Sands starts agitating things. Sands also enlists police officer and his sometime girlfriend Ajedrez (Eva Mendes, still stunning) to run cleanup and collect the payoff that would have gone to Marquez in return for a share of the cash. If Sands has planned correctly, he's achieved his goal of a regime change, got rid of a few bad guys and made a profit into the bargain.

Best laid plans gang aft agley, however. Things fall apart for Sands and his character starts to follow suit before being remarkably reborn and to some extent redeemed for his Machiavellian machinations. Mariachi, Lorenzo and Fideo declare themselves the sons of Mexico in their defence of El Presidente, a good man standing in the face of many, many bad men. The good guys end up victorious, the bad guys are punished, as befits any good fairy tale.

If the first two films were the making of a folk hero Once Upon A Time In Mexico is the shaggy dog story the hero evolves into, a Robin Hood with shotguns. Like all stories you hear, they tend to pick up embellishments along the way, and someone's been shining this story up a treat. Clearly Rodrigez has been using the series in part to look at how folk heroes are born, how they fit into the culture and how they shape nations while also tipping a wink at Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa's heroes / anti-heroes of The Man With No Name and Sanjuro.

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While most of the characters churn through their path to their logical and set-in-stone conclusion without missing a beat or a shot, it's Jorge (and to an extent Billy) that get the sympathy. Against Sands' larger that life overconfidence at managing colossal event in minute detail and Mariachi and co's almost casual smoldering self confidence and abilities at taking on insurmountable odds, Jorge has little more than a pistol and some F.B.I training to rely on. He's a normal person who's wandered into an unbelievable story and he spends much of the time wondering exactly what's going on, how can he stop it and how he can survive until the page turns over revealing yet more lunatic scrapes.

Effective as Blades is at dealing with the confusion the poor guy feels, I doubt anyone is paying the ticket price for a social commentary. This film will live or die by it's creed as an action movie, and while it's flawed there's much to recommend it. Everyone acts as well as can be expected give their paper thin roles but there are simply too many people floating around getting in the way of the action and the story. Dafoe has little to nothing to do as Barillo and the character might as well not exist. Mendes has little to nothing to do as Ajedrez and the character might as well not exist. Mickey Rourke has little to nothing to do as Billy and the character might as well not exist. Salma Hayek has almost nothing in the way of dialogue. Banderas has almost as little, but that fits with the whole mysterious gunslinger thing. Its only Sands and Jorge that seem to have anything substantial to say and I'm sure the film could do with a pruning of a few characters.

It's hardly the most complex plot there's ever been but the constant addition of new faces seems like a cheap stab at complexity that the subject matter doesn't really warrant. Perhaps less really is more. Still, the action ought to keep all but the most churlish amused. The first two movies were hardly shining examples of gritty realism but the third movies to new plateaus, all surfing down stairs on guitar cases and shotgun blasts propelling goons back along the same trajectory they jumped in on with the force of a traction engine. This little bubble of hyper reality may not be accurate but it's certainly fun, and that's the important thing.

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Rodriguez's love of the country is shown throughout and nothing more so than in his choice of locations and framing. Every town is charming, every building beautiful. The backdrops for his shootouts are as stunning as the shootouts themselves. While I think they don't quite match up to the previous films, the bloodshed is balanced with a fair few touches of humour and the whole experience is a joy to partake in. I expect to see any number of mediocre reviews of this film pointing out the above flaws and others I hadn't though of, but I'm giving this a high score. Why? It's certainly got a lot of flaws and on a purely technical level I could justify giving this a three, or perhaps even a two. However there are certain considerations that count more than ticking off boxes on a review by rote sheet. As my compatriot Lord Sir Disko noted for his Pirates Of The Caribbean review, perhaps soul is more a important consideration but one that's far harder to quantify and describe. I'll respond far more to the love put into this film by Rodriguez, the entire cast and the crew than in any number of technically sound yet bland outings normally churned out from Hollywood's direction. This feels fresher than those, and I like that feeling.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Robert Rodriguez
Cast list:
Antonio Banderas (El Mariachi)
Salma Hayek (Carolina)
Johnny Depp (Sands)
Mickey Rourke (Billy)
Eva Mendes (Ajedrez)
Danny Trejo (Cucuy)
Enrique Iglesias (Lorenzo)
Marco Leonardi (Fideo)
Cheech Marin (Belini)
Rub?n Blades (Jorge)
Willem Dafoe (Barillo)
Gerardo Vigil (Marquez)
Pedro Armend?riz (El Presidente)
Julio Oscar Mechoso (Advisor)