Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) 
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Friday, 12 September 2003

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Just as Sergio Leone went from big scale to epic when he moved from the second "Dollar" movie to "Once Upon a Time in the West," so Robert Rodriguez arrives at epic scale for "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," the third in his "El Mariachi"/"Desperado" series. Or maybe it's a sequel only to "Desperado," which was more a remake of the $7,000 "El Mariachi" than a sequel. And then again maybe not. Rodriguez is clearly uninterested in linear connections between his movies, so we needn't be, either.

As the title says, the movie is set in Mexico, apparently in the present. Johnny Depp is CIA Agent Sands, a figure whose goals remain mysterious even at the end; it's impossible to tell if we are to regard him as kind of a hero or sort of a villain, and that may be the idea anyway. He's in Mexico on two quests: he knows that cartel leader Barillo (Willem Dafoe) has made a deal with renegade General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil) to assassinate El Presidente (Pedro Armendariz, Jr.) He's gotten some information about this from one-eyed informer Belini (Cheech Marin), but also wants to get in touch with the famous El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) as well as retired FBI agent Jorge (Ruben Blades). Sands, who sometimes has three arms (too weird to explain further), pays Jorge with money in a "Clash of the Titans" lunch pail, and as Belini leaves, silently vows to kill him.

Sands' other quest is for the greatest plate of puerco pibil (roast pork) in all of Mexican's small-town cafes. When he finds an especially good serving, he kills the cook. This way, he says, he brings everything back into balance. Besides, the car is out back and he has to go through the kitchen anyway.

When we catch up with El Mariachi, who is sometimes called El for short (Spanish pun: El means "The" and is a masculine pronoun), has just acquired a good new guitar from a artisan in a small town. El Mariachi occasionally has flashbacks in which he and the beautiful Carolina (Salma Hayek) make spectacular escapes form gunmen sent by Marquez. As Belini describes her, she's the most beautiful drop dead woman you'll ever see. As she's Hayek, you'll get no argument from me.

We also meet the murderous Barillo and his American henchman Billy (Mickey Rourke), who carries around a small, sick-looking Chihuahua. (For unexplained but guessable reasons, when talking to Barillo, he always hides the dog behind his back.) Barillo is so cold-blooded he has Billy chop off the fingers (offscreen, fortunately) of his slightly too critical piano teacher.

Sands has a now-ended romantic relationship with the mysterious Ajedrez (Eva Mendes), who he is trying to enlist in whatever it is he's endeavoring to do regarding the planned assassination. And there's Cucuy (Rodriguez favorite Danny Trejo), who also works for Barilla (or maybe Marquez), and who, like most of the bad guys, is eager to kill the agile El Mariachi.

As usual with Robert Rodriguez, he performs multiple duties on the film. He's producer, director, writer, cinematographer and editor, for starters, as well as production designer, camera operator and visual effects producer. (The end credits surprisingly list a platoon of CGI technicians -- but the effects are just about impossible to detect.) Rodriguez comes close to the Platonic ideal of filmmakers: he really almost spins the film out of his navel.

Influenced by Sergio Leone's Westerns to an extent, Rodriguez uses long lenses a great deal, as well as a hand-held camera that swoops and circles around the actors. The colors are what northerners (and maybe Mexicans) think of as typically Mexican: warm earth tones, siennas, oranges and similar shades. It's a very handsome movie from beginning to end, with excellent use of a variety of Mexican locations, mostly small towns and larger settlements. He also lowers the light level to daring, dark degrees, playing with silhouettes and shadows -- and then goes back to well-lit action scenes.

In fact, the movie is primarily a necklace of action scenes; the only real plot imperative is to stop the assassination, and for El Mariachi to get revenge on Marquez, who destroyed El's earlier life, and nearly El himself. At least we know just what El Mariachi is trying to do: he recruits a couple of other musical gunmen, Lorenzo (Enrique Iglesias) and the heavy-drinking Fideo (Marco Leonardi, who's like something from a Kurosawa movie). And then he sets out to prevent the assassination.

But there isn't much more to the plot than that. There are intricate relationships between almost all the leading characters, informed by more feelings of revenge, betrayal for money, and other double-dealing duplicities. These elements, however, do not constitute a plot, just a way of holding all the elements together until Marquez leads his army unit on a coup d'etat assault on El Presidente as the town around them celebrates the Day of the Dead. No one undergoes a real change in the course of the film; those still alive at the end of the film are pretty much the same as they were at the beginning, even if one of them has been blinded by the creepiest gadget in movie history.

Primarily, "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" is a celebration of action and violence. El Mariachi is almost superhumanly skillful, dodging bullets, taking great falls, scampering up walls, blasting away with a variety of weapons (including what looks like a shotgun pistol), as well as occasionally strumming his guitar and singing. Even his flashbacks with Carolina are full of action, including an eye-popping, hilarious escape while they're manacled together.
There are chases involving motorcycles and cars, with lots of collisions -- usually with a hapless person crushed between the colliding vehicles. (Maybe this is where the CGI comes in.) There's a great shootout in a market, with vegetables and fruit exploding all over the place.

And the film is occasionally funny, even if the humor is on the weird side. Sands arranges to meet El Mariachi in a confession booth in a cathedral, and during the scene, Depp does a dead-on impression of Marlon Brando -- but never does it again. He also seems to have an endless supply of clothes, including a shirt emblazoned CIA (Cleavage Inspection Agent). He also has most of the weirdest exchanges in the movie, as when he challenges Trejo to prove whether he's a MexiCAN or a MexiCAN'T. Depp is, as usual, both subtle and incandescent; other good actors build careers -- he's building a legend. He made this before "Pirates of the Caribbean" and after "From Hell." The man is really on a roll.

Banderas doesn't have much to do here in terms of acting; he's glowering and tragic, on the verge of being devoured by the tragedy in his past. But he's highly photogenic, and perfect for the role. Even though you'll notice he doesn't do action movies for anyone other than Rodriguez.

Hayek, sultry and sexy, appears only in flashbacks. Ruben Blades is the least unusual of the characters, although he is given to talking to himself sometimes, as if he were still wearing a wire connecting him to the FBI for which he no longer works. Mickey Rourke should sue the plastic surgeon who turned his interesting face into what looks something like a slab of steak with eyes. He's still a good, quirky actor, but he's toned the quirkiness down to acceptable levels nowadays. Willem Dafoe is completely convincing as a Mexican drug cartel leader, but other than issuing orders to kill people, and running around at the climax with his face wrapped in bandages (making him look like the Teenage Frankenstein before unveiling), he's mostly a minor character. But Rodriguez is very good to his minor characters in general: Danny Trejo is a strangely likable psychopath, and Cheech Marin an amusing snitch.

As usual with Rodriguez, he uses sound very creatively and often not realistically. The music, which he composed, is much the same -- mostly Latin-themed and always in service to the images. Rodriguez is almost a one-man film studio; maybe next he'll start acting. And I'll be he'd be good at it, too. He's good at almost everything else, and his movies are always entertaining. "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" is no exception; its lack of a story prevents viewers from becoming very involved in the people, but there's always something great to look at. And Johnny Depp once again delivers a fascinating performance.







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