Once Upon a Time in Mexico Review

by Mark R. Leeper (markrleeper AT yahoo DOT com)
October 6th, 2003

    (a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

    CAPSULE: Robert Rodriguez's second sequel to EL
    MARIACHI has a much bigger budget. As I said
    when I had seen just the trailer, while Hollywood
    is making expensive super-violence films with flat
    characters, nobody can match Rodriguez for his
    ability to make inexpensive super-violence films
    with flat characters. With a mid-range budget
    Rodriguez puts a lot of mindless violence on the
    screen. Moment to moment the films is unpredictable, but on the large scale the plot is old, predictable, and familiar. Rating: 5 (0 to 10), low +1 (-4 to +4)
For those who care about such things, this is not a Rodriguez low- budget action film, but it is not a high-budget Hollywood action film either. ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO cost a mid-range thirty million dollars. There are those who are fascinated with his films to see what he can do to stretch a peso. They will be disappointed with ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO. He has big-budget extravagances on a mid-range budget. He has some scenes with lots of extras in the view of the camera. He has lots of explosions, though many look just a little too much like the explosions in the old Bugs Bunny cartoons are obviously not real. Frankly I don't care so much about how much money this film cost to make. Nobody seems to be offering to pass the savings on to me as a viewer, so the question is not one of budget but is what is on the screen worth the standard ticket price. The answer is a definite perhaps.

El Mariachi (or just "El") is back. Antonio Banderas plays the hero a second time. (Incidentally Carlos Gallardo, who was the first Mariachi, is one of the producers of this film.) CIA Agent Sands (Johnny Depp) is down in Mexico to hire a killer for a job. He hears about the legendary El Mariachi, and that involves El in a very big game. The plot is a lot like ALIEN. It is not like the plot of ALIEN--it is like the creature in ALIEN. Every few scenes the plot has mutated and gotten bigger and has become more outlandish. Eventually it takes in the drug lords, the military, El Mariachi's past, the CIA, the FBI, and the entire government of Mexico. The cast sports some major talent. Salma Hayek returns as El's love Carolina, but only in flashbacks. Willem Dafoe is the ambitious drug lord Barillo. Mickey Rourke plays his henchman. Ruben Blades is an FBI agent. And what would a Mariachi film be without Cheech Marin playing a low-life? Veteran actor Pedro Armendáriz Jr. plays El Presidente. I will not go into the plot in any detail, but the wide range of characters suggests the scope.

Johnny Depp is good as Agent Sands. He is not turning in any bad performances this year. But he is involved with a running gag that does not really work. Sands does something to gain a tactical advantage in fights. And he does it many times. It probably would not succeed the first time, much less repeatedly. But this is a film in which you are supposed to just enjoy the cool scenes and not stop to think if they are possible or not. A lot of what we are seeing is ridiculous but fun. It is a film with more action scenes than plot and some of the scenes are actually quite imaginative. But the characters are flat and we just keep getting to the "big scene," one big scene after another. Some are action scenes, some are jokes. And many of the jokes are on the viewer.

There are several places where the film looks rushed or mistakes have been made to save budget. In the middle of a sequence in which Sands buys chewing gum from a street boy, the box of gum betrays the fact that the editor has flipped the scene rather than reshooting with the actors in the right positions. A little digital work might have helped. In another scene we see Depp's eyes though sunglasses that should have been opaque. I will not go into why that was important, but it was at that point of the plot. Apparently nobody proofread the credits so they left in a credit for "Assistant Cosutme Designer." Of course these flaws are small in relation to the tens of millions of dollars that Rodriguez saved in production costs, but they make the film seem unprofessional. I have to say that I did enjoy the bullfight scene, as those who know my personal philosophy would expect.
The title is, of course, an allusion to Sergio Leone's two films ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. But the title seems to imply that the story will be told in a mythic style. Curiously of the three Mariachi films, this one is the one that seems to be least done in a mythic style. If the events in this film actually happened they would not be a myth but Mexican history. This film is not very good as myth and is just passable as an action film. I rate it a 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Mark R. Leeper
[email protected]
Copyright 2003 Mark R. Leeper

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