Once Upon a Time in Mexico Review

by Harvey S. Karten (harveycritic AT cs DOT com)
September 15th, 2003


Reviewed by: Harvey S. Karten
Grade: C
Columbia Pictures
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Written by: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke
Screened at Loews 34th St., NYC, 9/13/03:

    Who says that the Chinese in Hong Kong are the only people who can turn violence into ballets that could conceivably be choreographed by George Balanchine? "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" is the third episode of a sequel beginning with "El Mariachi" (a young singing guitarist arrives in a small town and is thought to be a vicious prison escapee), followed up by "Desperado" (the stranger arrives in a small town looking for vengeance against a crime boss). Wrapping up, Robert Rodriguez takes on the multiple tasks of director, editor, production designer, composer, scripter and cinematographer to give new meaning to auteur theory. This is Rodriguez's film all the way, his actors dance through their roles as though members of the Bolshoi Ballet tossing aside "Swan Lake" to a postmodern performance south of our border. (A similar scenario could happen south of the Bolshoi's border, where the Soviets bolted after a decades' long war in Afghanistan left a battleground to this very day.)

    The film, which miraculously took only seven weeks to shoot given Rodriguez's jack-of-all-trades talent, has a major fault: The story is incoherent. The writer-director is obviously more interested in his visuals then in structuring a story. Visuals alone do not a fine film make, because without a substantial plot, why should we care about the fate of the characters? If Johnny Depp in the role of a corrupt CIA agent winds up sharing his fate with Oedipus after an hour or so of wrecks, and if Antonio Banderas the unnamed mariachi guitarist kills a hundred people in the name of vengeance, why would anyone care?

    The story revolves around CIA agent Sands (Johnny Depp) who plays the role like the kind of cool dude whom high- school kids would be happy to emulate. Depp, whose dialogue in a bar south of the U.S. border introduces what could charitably be called a story, seeks out El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), to foil a coup d'etat whose purpose is to oust the Mexican president. The coup is planned by major drug kingpin Barrillo (Willem Dafoe), who is also the guy whose trigger man succeeded in killing his wife Carolina (Salma Hayek whose role as part of El Mariachi's memory is a surprisingly small one).
    Several characters with side roles are exploited for their colorful personalities, including Eva Mendes as a Gina-Gershon lookalike Ajedrez, Mickey Rourke as the laid-back Billy Chambers, and Danny Trejo as Cucuy.

There's more gunplay in the picture than you'll find at any video arcade, with El Mariachi killing 50, 60 80, 100 of the kingpin's henchemen while avoiding hundreds of rounds from a succession of bad guys. We've seen visuals like that how many times? So many that we hunger for a real story, one in which Banderas does not have to go through his role like a man overdosed on Botox and Depp as a character actor being used here as a placid cipher.

Rated R. 101 minutes.(c) 2003 by Harvey Karten at
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