Once Upon a Time in Mexico Review

by John Ulmer (johnulmer2003 AT msn DOT com)
December 22nd, 2003


3.5/5 stars


The story behind the title of "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" has almost become infamous by now, but I'll explain it to those readers who may not know already.

Robert Rodriguez, who rose to fame with "El Mariachi," was trying to think of an appropriate title for the final installment in his Mariachi trilogy. Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction") recommended the title "Once Upon a Time in Mexico." Why? His favorite director, Sergio Leone, the man who inspired him to make films in the first place, crafted a little film once called "Once Upon a Time in the West," not to mention his final motion picture, "Once Upon a Time in America," which is one of the best films ever, and certainly a terrific gangster film by any account.

And so here we have it, "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," the long-awaited ending of the Mariachi trilogy. The film is the ultimate spaghetti western tribute, shot like one of Sergio's old low-budget movies. It cost $32 million more than his second El Mariachi film, "Desperado," but it's still a pretty low budget compared to most action films on the market.

The most admirable thing about this film is its style. It looks great! It was "chopped, shot and scored" the film, as the unconventional credits inform us, using a Sony 24-fps digital Hi-Definition camera. Great! The film perfectly catches the bleak, dry outlook on Mexico -- and it is, along with the extravagant, overblown special effects, the best aspect of the film.
The plot isn't. It takes a lot of twists and turns, but I couldn't care less, since I was lost in the first ten minutes. This film moves like a bullet -- blunt, fast, and furious, and it certainly doesn't take its time to accentuate the elements of the plot.

Rodriguez has never been one for a good plot. He likes things over the top and fast, with awkward cuts, but it's popcorn movie heaven for any person who wants to just sit back, relax, and have a good time.

I'll try to explain the plot as best I can, but it'll be hard. Here we go...
CIA Agent Sands (Johnny Depp) is trying to prevent the assassination of the Mexican "presidente," and so he enlists El (Antonio Banderas) to kill Barillo (Willem Dafoe all greased up like a Mexican). Only Sands is a corrupt agent -- his real intention is to get his hands on some dough left over by Barillo after he dies.

Plot twists upon plot twists amount, and there were so many that I had trouble following the film. The screen I viewed it on was bleak and dark, but the digital camera's effects could still be made out, and that was really the thing that kept my interest.

There was a particular scene where Agent Sands walked into the back kitchen of a restaraunt and put a bullet in the chef's head that felt like it was shot on a home video camera -- a trace of fake blood even remained on the camera after the cook went down. Stuff like this is a new kind of mainstream filmmaking, and the ultimate "fun movie," so to speak.

Don't get me wrong. Rodriguez is a long way from making a coherent or important motion picture like Tarantino and Leone, but he is the master of popcorn movies, having made little treats like "Spy Kids" and such films by the age of 35. He even wrote a script for "Predator 3," which never got made, and I'm sort of glad -- he would have made it into an overblown action fest like "Predator 2," which was a disappointing enough entry into the series. But now they've got Paul W.S. Anderson ressurecting both "Alien" and "Predator" series together, based on the videogame and comic book series, which makes me think I would have preferred Rodriguez in the first place.
The point is, his films aren't majestic or nearly as smart as they could be. But they're fun, fast, brutal, blunt, cool. Depp, as Agent Sands, is on a winning streak, while support from Mickey Rourke, Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Ruben Blades and Eva Mendes provides plenty of celebrity appeal -- oh, and there are flashbacks of El's dead wife (Salma Hayek), who is credited above Johnny Depp and smacked on the front of the film posters in, I can only assume, an effort to attract male audience members as an added bonus. (Robert Rodriguez picture? Depp with a machine gun? Overblown action sets? Salma Hayek? Popcorn movie heaven!)

Depp has been around since "A Nightmare on Elm Street," and with 2003's "Pirates of the Caribbean" he finally broke into the mainstream (cult films by Tim Burton have mainly been his resume so far). The thing is, we rarely see Depp himself on-screen -- in "Edward Scissorhands" he was the social outcast, quiet and disturbed, muttering only a handful of lines. In "Ed Wood" he was channeling the Worst Director of All Time. In "Sleepy Hollow" he was putting on the olden days act, and in "Pirates of the Caribbean" he was the drunken British pirate.

Depp is rarely actually Depp. Even in "Nick of Time" he was the silent businessman, very out of character from his very suave self. Here Johnny gets to finally have loads of fun, be his cool self, and show off his flair for action films. He's both the comic relief and the guy you wish would get a role as an action hero some day.

I didn't leave "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" with any strong feelings towards the film, and it seemed a bit too long and fast for its own good, but it certainly looks great and is fun to watch. This is an unpretentious action film with great style and execution. Oh, and Depp is still the man. Somebody get this guy a John McClane, and hurry up already.

- John Ulmer
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