Once Upon a Time in Mexico Review

by Laura Clifford (laura AT reelingreviews DOT com)
September 13th, 2003


Drug lord Barrillo (Willem Dafoe, "Spider-Man") is backing General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil) to overthrow the government of the Mexican President (Pedro Armendariz, "Herod's Law") , so shady CIA agent Sands (Johnny Depp, "Pirates of the Caribbean") tracks down El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas, "Spy Kids III"), a man primed for revenge against the General, to kill him in the third entry of writer/director/cinematographer/editor/composer Robert Rodriguez's ("Spy Kids III") El Mariachi trilogy, "Once Upon a Time in Mexico."

One man show Rodriguez once again delivers flashy stunts and quirky humor to cap off his Mariachi saga, but his story is so overstuffed and overpopulated that El Mariachi seems more like a supporting character. Most of the huge ensemble cast gets his or her moment in the sun, although terrific performers like Ruben Blades are given short shrift in the busy tale.

The story begins with Cheech Marin's ("Masked & Anonymous") saloon owner efficiently and humorously bringing us and Sands up to date with a colorful retelling of the Mariachi myth. Sands is another of Depp's off the wall creations with his fake third arm (to hide the real one with its finger always on the trigger), colorful tourist garb right out of "Fear and Loathing" and habit of making payoffs in goofy vintage lunch boxes. Sands is lethal, however, and he sets off a chain of events by engaging not only El Mariachi to kill Marquez but retired FBI agent Jorge (Ruben Blades, "Assassination Tango") to go after Barrillo. He also sets up a man inside Barrillo's organization, discontented American and loyal dog owner Billy Chambers (Mickey Rourke, "Masked & Anonymous") and arranges to meet another undercover FBI agent, girlfriend Ajedrez (Eva Mendes, "2 Fast, 2 Furious") at the planned showdown. Meanwhile El Mariachi reassembles his team of Lorenzo (Enrique Iglesias, in a so-so screen debut) and the constantly soused Fideo (Marco Leonardi, "Like Water for chocolate") while reflecting on the events that led up to him losing his wife Caroline (Salma Hayek, "Frida") and daughter - and maybe, it is implied, his own life.

Rodriguez, who takes credit for having been 'shot, chopped and scored' the film, delivers in all three of those areas. His high definition video compositions include great facial closeups, making landscapes of the faces of Danny Trejo ("XxX") and Willem Dafoe, and classical spaghetti Western shootouts. Editing is tight, with one scene of El Mariachi and Caroline escaping from a 5th floor hotel room while manacled together an instant classic. His script has the feel of the passing of a baton, however, with Depp coming into the foreground as Banderas slides into the shadows. One of Sands's assembly turns out to have hidden ties to Barrillo and a confrontation leaves him hideously blinded, yet Sands continues his mission, wearing sunglasses over eye sockets dripping blood, aided by a young boy (Tony Valdes) who comes to idolize him. Most of the film's humor derives from Depp, costumed in an increasingly hilarious set of tee shirts (CIA, I'm With Stupid and the Taco Bell Chihuahua) or disguising himself in a Church confessional as what can only be described as a Yiddish Brando. Only Depp could sidle up to the imposing Trejo and make the line 'Are you a Mexican or a Mexican't?' work. In the end, he's costumed in myth-making beaded black both in contrast to and complementary of El Mariachi's more ethnic, musical style.

The trilogy's finale is entertaining, if ultimately empty. For all it's flash and dazzle "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" is too episodic and splintered, but a potential spinoff for Depp's blind assassin could be promising.


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