|Once Upon a Time in Mexico|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 20 January 2004|
Once upon a time, director/writer/producer/editor/cinematographer/composer/a bunch/a-bunch-of-other-jobs-too’er Robert Rodriguez shot to fame by making the absolutely entertaining and kinetic Spanish-language action flick “El Mariachi” for almost no money. Even if his budget wound up being slightly more than the reported $7.000, as some journalists have claimed, it was still an impressive achievementon its own terms, let alone in terms of bang for buck. “El Mariachi” was so successful that it spawned a studio-backed English language sequel, “Desperado,” which was shot for several million dollars – still very cheap by Hollywood terms, but a fortune for Rodriguez.
“Desperado” established Rodriguez (again filling most of the crucial creative positions behind the camera) as a filmmaking force to be reckoned with, along with making its leading man Antonio Banderas a full-fledged star. The reason was simple: “Desperado” is a near-perfect low-budget action movie, full of invention, insane nonstop kinetic movement and black comedy, with a completely captivating performance by Banderas as an itinerant guitar player wandering Mexico as he seeks vengeance for a crippling injury to his hand and the death of his girlfriend.
Eight years after making “Desperado” (with a number of other successes, including “From Dusk Till Dawn” and the “Spy Kids” franchise, under his belt), Rodriguez has added a third film to the Mariachi chronicles, making it a full-fledged trilogy with “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” “Mexico” is reasonably good fun, but there’s a slightly distracted sense to it. Rodriguez, who here has directed, written, produced (with Elizabeth Avellan and Carlos Gallardo), “shot, chopped and scored,” has so many plot threads here that simply introducing all the different elements slows things down. He’s clearly enjoying playing with some of his new narrative toys, especially Johnny Depp as rogue C.I.A. agent Sands.
It’s actually easy to understand Rodriguez’s fascination with Depp’s character, who seems a little like somebody Graeme Greene might have dreamed up if he got high on tequila. Depp is as droll a scene stealer here (albeit a considerably more vicious one) as he is in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” However, the movie wanders a good deal as it follows the machinations of not just Sands but also all of his cohorts and rivals – the C.I.A. agent wants Banderas’ El (“as in ‘the,’ ” we’re told) to assassinate General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil) once the warlord has overthrown the President of Mexico (Pedro Armendariz), while drug lord Barillo (Willem Dafoe), a wanted U.S. criminal (Mickey Rourke), a former F.B.I. agent (Ruben Blades), a hired thug (Danny Trejo), a wily information broker (Cheech Marin) and a sexy law officer (Eva Mendes). We should be primed for major clashes, but because we aren’t invested in most of the characters, their interactions sometimes don’t pack enough punch to justify the amount of set-up involved.
However, Banderas is captivating whenever he’s on, and he and Enrique Iglesias and Marco Leonardi (as El Mariachi’s two sidekicks) create a wonderful deadpan humor in their deadpan musical trio routines between shootouts. Rodriguez also stages some great action sequences – there’s an especially funny, furious one with Banderas and Salma Hayek, reprising her role as his lover Carolina, trying to flee gunmen while handcuffed together in Chapter 8. Depp exudes such joy in inhabiting his cool, bemused killer that he’s instantly engaging every time he turns up. His riffs are worth pausing for, but the jockeying between the other villains – cool though most of them are (Trejo especially) – makes us itchy for the next shootout.
The 5.1 sound is very good, starting in Chapter 1, as machine gunfire resonates in the rears, a mariachi guitar plays up front and the whoosh of flying knives causes room vibration. Chapter 3 brings us clearly isolated guitar notes before Rodriguez’s score (yes, he composed the music as well) swells into full dramatic mode.
The quality of the digital video transfer is precise enough to preserve the iridescent sheen of Rourke’s violet jacket in Chapter 4.
Chapter 9 boasts huge directional gunshots so loud and solid on impact that you practically expect to have to pry slugs the size of cannonballs out of the rears, which still doesn’t drown out the plinking of smaller bullets striking targets.
Chapter 17 makes sweet, playful use of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” as Banderas noodles it out on his guitar. In Chapter 19, a whistle travels deliberately through the system, cranking the tension before we get more huge gunshots as the camera spins around Banderas, firing in iconographic pose, arms spread. Again, the digital video beautifully conveys the bright colors in a town square sequence.
Chapter 24 gives us subtly heightened sound, as a newly blinded man listens intently to what is going on around us. Chapter 27 provides yet more impressive directional gunfire, along with a flamethrower and lots of squealing wheels, exercising all speakers and the sub.
Extras on the disc are wonderful, starting with Rodriguez’s commentary, which is both entertaining and genuinely informative. Rodriguez approaches his audience as though we’re all aspiring filmmakers, and he’s forthcoming with both anecdotes and tips. There’s also an isolated 5.1 music and sound effects track – well, sort of isolated, as Rodriguez provides a lot of narration about the film’s sounds. The talk is again fun and educational. The “10 Minute Film School” featurette has Rodriguez explaining concisely how to achieve visual effects inexpensively and easily, a tour of his Troublemaker Studios extensively examines his sound equipment and “Film Is Dead: An Evening With Robert Rodriguez,” shot during a Q&A session at a theatre on the Sony Studios lot in L.A., intersperses behind-the-scenes footage with Rodriguez addressing his audience on the benefits of shooting on digital video.
“Once Upon a Time In Mexico” has more plot complexity than “Desperado,” but its heart is still clearly in seeing its heroes blast their way into and out of dire straits. The film is fine when it follows these instincts – a little more of the lightning pacing and fearless lunacy of its predecessor would have made it still better.