Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Director : Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay : Robert Rodriguez
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : 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), Rubén Blades (Jorge FBI), Willem Dafoe (Barillo), Gerardo Vigil (Marquez), Pedro Armendáriz (El Presidente)
After spending the last three years crafting the family-friendly Spy Kids trilogy, writer/director Robert Rodriguez has returned to the vengeful protagonist who first appeared in the movie that put Rodriguez on the map, 1992’s ultra-low-budget action flick El Mariachi, which was reportedly made for $7,000 but looks like it cost 10 times that. Rodriguez’s first Hollywood film was 1995’s Desperado, which was partially a remake and partially a sequel to El Mariachi, this time with a multi-million dollar budget and a marquee star in Antonio Banderas.
Now, he has brought us Once Upon a Time in Mexico, whose title consciously evokes the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. Like Leone, Rodriguez has an innate feel for how to serve up pulp on an operatic scale, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico delivers what you’d expect. This time around, the loner gunman El Mariachi (Banderas) finds himself caught in the crossfire of an attempted coup d’état against the president of Mexico (Pedro Armendáriz) organized by a drug kingpin named Barillo (Willem Dafoe) and a Mexican army general, Marquez (Gerardo Vigil). Pulling the strings in the background is a corrupt CIA agent named Sands (Johnny Depp), who wants to make sure the coup is a success, but wants to hire El Mariachi to then kill Marquez so he can’t assume control. El Mariachi has his own beef with Marquez, as he was responsible for killing El Mariachi’s wife (Salma Hayek) and young daughter. Sands introduces more personal vendettas into the mix when he also brings in a former FBI agent (Rubén Blades) who has his own reasons for wanting to get Barillo. And then there’s Mickey Rourke as Billy, an Chihuahua-toting American mercenary who may be tired of doing Barillo’s dirty work for him.
With its multiple, intersecting narrative strands and large cast of characters, the plot is something of a mess, with a lot of conflicting motives and double-crosses that don’t always fully add up. Yet, it doesn’t much matter because Rodriguez is more interested in the rush of the movie’s visuals than the coherence of the storyline (the fact that the backstory of Salma Hayek’s character doesn’t match with her character in Desperado is testament to how fast and loose Rodriguez plays with the narrative). He clearly wanted to open up the action by including as many characters as possible, which means that El Mariachi is sometimes relegated to a near-supporting role, particularly when Johnny Depp’s goofy-cunning CIA agent commands the screen (he wears embarrassingly bad disguises, but is capable of cold-blooded murder of the most ruthless sort). In some ways, Rodriguez spreads his story a little too thin, and you find yourself wishing for the thick, brute simplicity of Desperado’s tale of single-minded vengeance.
Narrative aside, the only other problem with Once Upon a Time in Mexico is that Rodriguez elected to shoot it in high-definition video (he worked as his own camera operator). Part of this was purely economical, as it allowed Rodriguez to shoot faster and also view his shots immediately after taking them (not to mention it allowed him the luxury of shooting tons of footage and letting his actors—especially Depp—improvise their performances). While the movie looks as good as any digital movie I’ve ever seen, it still doesn’t look nearly as good as it could have looked had it been shot on film, particularly since Rodriguez was clearly trying to emulate the visual look of Sergio Leone’s widescreen westerns. The slightly too-sharp image cuts into the old-school pulp-mythic feelings Rodriguez is trying to create. After all, the story is a mess and the characters are largely one-dimensional, so it’s the visuals that must carry most of the movie’s weight.
This is not to say, however, that Once Upon a Time in Mexico is not a kinetic visual feast. Rodriguez knows how to stage over-the-top action, and here he fills the frame with the same kind of cleverly staged gunfights that made Desperado so visually riveting. Rodriguez also edited the movie himself (or, as the credits read, he “chopped” it), and he shows a real knack for timing and rhythm, punching up the action when needed, but also allowing for those heavy moments before it all comes down—the calm before the storm. He also wallows a bit more in grisliness this time around, including a botched facial reconstructive surgery and a character who has his eyes gouged out, but still manages to stick around for the last third of the movie. It’s all so supremely silly that you can’t help but be enraptured by it, particularly since every frame is a testament to how much Rodriguez loves making movies on his own terms.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick