Once Upon a Time in Mexico Review

by Homer Yen (homer_yen AT yahoo DOT com)
September 16th, 2003

"Once Upon a Time in Mexico" - A Bit Too Chaotic to Enjoy
by Homer Yen
(c) 2003

Not many films can be described as eagerly anticipated. But "Once upon a Time in Mexico" is deserving of such a label because Director Robert Rodriguez, at only 35 years of age, is known for his powerful creativity and fiery energy. And these qualities garnered him immediate notice when he released the low-budget/cult-favorite "Desperado" in 1995.

The ending of that film left a door open for a possible sequel, and fans of Rodriguez's oeuvre of contemporary westerns (he also made El Mariachi in 1993) will be glad that he decided to complete his trilogy. "Once upon a Time in Mexico" has the full-throttle flair that pays homage to spaghetti westerns, spices it up with Latin zest, and mixes in some John Woo elements as well. What you get are bold colors, over-the-top shootouts, breathlessly handsome people, and a strong desire to learn how to play the guitar.

By bold, one needs only to look at one of its showcase chase sequences in which our hero, El (Banderas) and his beautiful sidekick, Carolina (Hayek), work to feverishly escape down a 5-story building while chained together. Watch with a smile as each one grabs on to various pieces of wood that protrudes from the side of the building as they swing like monkeys from one protrusion to another. It's like Tarzan meets Fear Factor. Then there's another slick sequence in which bad guys try to corner the hero. But a few deft moves, a fast and furious motorcycle chase, and a hot musical score provides us with the kind of entertainment value that ensures high popcorn sales from the concession stand.

However, while this is certainly the kind of fun that we'd expect, we have to ask two questions. First, does El really plan ahead for anything? And, why are these two chained together? It speaks to two larger problems with the film. Does the film have any grand plan? And, why is the film so hard to understand?

Its grand plan, unfortunately, does not seem to be the telling of a coherent story. There are great individual scenes, shots of heroic acts, and lot of atmosphere. This is all fine for a two-minute trailer. But, its novelty wears thin in the absence of character development and an interesting plot. And, the story is really far too confusing to understand.

It is primarily a revenge flick. However, the labyrinthine plot also involves an attempted assassination, a political coup, and a swirling number of characters that have their own separate motivations. They include a retired FBI agent (Ruben Blades) who yearns to finish an unresolved case; a vicious drug lord (Willem Dafoe) who wants to overthrow the government, a deadpan mercenary (Johnny Depp) who wants to stop him; a Texan (Mickey Rourke) who is indentured to the drug lord; and a sexy FBI agent (Eva Mendes) whose role is largely unnecessary. Just when you think that you have figured out who is doing what, the coup ensues leaving everyone caked in blood and dust. Now, you have to figure out who's who all over again. "Once upon a Time in Mexico" has its moments but is ultimately and unfortunately too busy and unfocused. You'll like it in stretches. But too many pauses will not only diminish a great guitar performance, it will also diminish the potential of a movie even as feverish as this.

Grade: C+

S: 1 out of 3
L: 1 out of 3
V: 3 out of 3

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