Case Number 05783: Small Claims Court


Sony // 2003 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // December 13th, 2004

The Charge

"We're sons of Mexico" -- The Mariachi

The Case

If the universe was fair, this disc would have ended up in the hands of a reviewer who thought that Once Upon a Time in Mexico was overlong, scattered and dull -- it seems that most reviewers approached it that way. And we already have a glowing review of the film on this site. The universe isn't fair, though, so it came to me instead. This new Superbit edition of the film has a stunning transfer, but it's not really a necessary upgrade.

The El Mariachi trilogy is full of inconsistencies. This isn't necessarily a problem, as long as the series is viewed as the creation of a folk legend rather than as a single extended story. The first film tells the story of a mariachi in the wrong place mistaken for someone else. Desperado wasn't so much a sequel as a re-imagination of the character. Suddenly, El Mariachi was no longer an innocent forced into violence, but a dark anti-hero bent on revenge. The action in the second film was more exaggerated, more cartoonish. Now, in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, El Mariachi's transformation into a folk legend is complete. The revenge part of the story remains, but he has suddenly become a freedom fighter in a battle that's central to the heart of Mexico. It's even bigger and bolder than Desperado, and the scope of the plot and characters have increased.

This time around, El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas, Desperado) is brought out of hiding to avenge the death of Carolina (Salma Hayek, Desperado) at the hands of the evil, sunglasses-wearing General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil). This revenge isn't the only thing going down, though. Agent Sands (Johnny Depp, Edward Scissorhands) hires El Mariachi to assassinate General Marquez, in order to prevent a coup after the president (Pedro Armendariz) is murdered by the Barillo cartel. Meanwhile, Barillo (Willem Dafoe, Spider-Man) is being hunted down by Jorje (Ruben Blades), a retired FBI agent, and Ajedrez (Eva Mendez, Training Day), a young Mexican task-force cop. Then, things start to get a little complicated.

If the film has a major flaw, it's certainly its failure to balance this many plots and characters. Salma Hayek has been completely wasted here, and Antonio Banderas doesn't have nearly enough screen time to be considered the protagonist. Overall, though, I didn't find it to be a critical problem. This is an epic western flick with a fun ensemble cast. Rodriguez knows how to shoot an action sequence as well as anyone else, and he goes all out in this third installment of the series. By the end, all of these plot elements start to fall into place, thanks to some pitch-perfect performances and some truly clever editing. The climax of the story fills the final third of the film, and it is full of double crosses, triple crosses, wild shootouts and pulpy dialogue. Certainly, it's not a film that everyone will enjoy as much as I have, but I think it's a pretty safe bet for fans of the series. I will admit that it's the weakest of the three, but it's far stronger than countless other Hollywood action films that are churned out each year.

Movies shot in high definition digital tend to make great DVD transfers, and the first edition of Once Upon a Time in Mexico looked reasonably impressive. At times, the transfer seemed to lack a little vibrancy, and some details were obscured by compression artifacts. The video transfer on this Superbit edition is perfect. The colors are beautiful in every scene, even the ones with a lot of rich reds. The missing details and compression flaws are gone as well. Every detail here is clear and sharp. I don't think I have seen a better video transfer on DVD, and that says some excellent things about the future of High Def digital filming. The sound transfer is every bit as good. The only real addition on this version is the DTS track, which is the best way to listen to the film. It is a rich and active track, with a wide soundstage, serious bass, and guitar chords that dance from the speakers. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that this is a track that was remixed with home theater systems in mind.

Of course, this transfer comes at the cost of the cool special features on the original disc.

With new high definition formats as close as they are, it's very hard to justify the cost of a Superbit DVD. If technical perfection is your thing, you should be able to start jumping up to high definition films within the next year or two. If you don't really care, then you would probably rather have the nice special edition with the cool Rodriguez special features. If you haven't picked up the original disc, weigh the values of those two things carefully. People with small televisions and no surround systems won't notice the difference between the two discs. People with good systems will appreciate the boost in quality here -- but Rodriguez is one of the most interesting directors to listen to, so the loss of the audio commentary and special features is a serious one. Sony has got to pull its stuff together and start delivering their best transfers alongside the special features, like every other studio in the world.

Rodriguez gets points for delivering another thoroughly entertaining film, even if it's not quite up to par with the rest of the El Mariachi trilogy. Sony gets points for a great transfer, but loses them again for not putting in this effort the first time around with a two disc special edition. Their idiotic DVD strategy forces the customer to lose in one way or another, and that's not cool.

Review content copyright © 2004 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 80

Perp Profile
Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)

* English
* French

Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks
* None

* IMDb