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Facts of the Case
El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas, The Mask of Zorro) has established a reputation as one of the deadliest gunfighters in all of Mexico. Despite his fame, El Mariachi has taken careful steps to ensure that his reputation is filled with mystery—at this point, it's difficult to discern the reality from the myth. One day, the gunfighter is approached by a corrupt CIA Agent named Sheldon Sands (Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean), who tells El Mariachi of a revolution being plotted by General Emiliano Varquez (Gerardo Virgil). The General has been hired by a local drug lord (Willem Dafoe, Spider-Man) to assassinate the President of Mexico (Pedro Armendariz, Jr.) and take over the local government. Sands recruits El Mariachi to take out the General and persuades a former FBI Agent (Ruben Blades, The Milagro Beanfield War) to take down the drug dealer. The mission starts out well enough, but things get complicated, messy and violent on the way to the finish line. Who will be left standing when the dust settles?
Robert Rodriguez has made no secret of the fact that he intended his El Mariachi trilogy to mirror Sergio Leone's "Man with No Name" films. If El Mariachi was his A Fistful of Dollars and Desperado was his For a Few Dollars More, then Once Upon a Time in Mexico would be his The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (not Once Upon a Time in the West as some have suggested, however). Like that last "Man with No Name" film, Once Upon a Time in Mexico offers more action, a bigger scope, more big names and a much bigger production budget. Unfortunately, bigger doesn't always mean better in this instance.
Somewhere in the process of deciding that Once Upon a Time in Mexico would be his The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, Robert Rodriguez also seemingly decided that El Mariachi would be The Man with No Name. While Antonio Banderas was frisky, funny, and wildly energetic in Desperado, he's been completely robbed of his charm in this installment. Marching through the film with a scowl on his face, El Mariachi has become a blandly generic action hero. Rodriguez tries to add a measure of emotional weight to the character by giving him some personal tragedy to deal with, but this material is handled so clumsily (and the film in general feels so insubstantial) that it's hard to invest much emotion in the proceedings. Banderas might have been able to make a stronger impression if he actually had the entire duration of the film to develop a quieter variation on the character, but the actor has surprisingly little screen time in this installment.
Instead, we spend a lot of time visiting the assorted supporting players in the film, most of whom are disappointingly bland. Eva Mendes (We Own the Night) doesn't make any sort of memorable impression as an FBI Agent, Willem Dafoe proves atypically generic as the film's primary bad guy, Danny Trejo (Predators) offers a less compelling version of his Desperado character, Ruben Blades fails to bring anything of interest to his role, and Mickey Rourke seems more interested in his pet Chihuahua than in his character. Salma Hayek is perfectly fine in a reprisal of her Desperado role, but despite receiving second billing her part is basically a glorified cameo.
Rodriguez might have had a lot more money at his disposal for this third installment of his trilogy, but no amount of cash can hide the fact that Rodriguez simply hadn't evolved as a writer/director in the eight years between Desperado and this film. His storytelling is still frustratingly fragmented and suffers from all kinds of pacing issues; his dialogue still trying too hard to echo the work of old pal Quentin Tarantino. The action is slick and entertaining, but much of it is staged rather clumsily. Rodriguez can offer some exciting camera angles and cool self-contained moments, but he has a hell of time attempting to figure out how to set them up. By the time the film reaches its third act, the movie descends into chaos and the film's sense of fun starts to fizzle out (this is a problem in numerous Rodriguez flicks).
The film looks solid in hi-def, as Rodriguez's handsome digital cinematography shines in this 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. The film looks excellent for a catalogue title, offering superb detail and depth throughout the proceedings. The flick's reddish-brown palette comes across quite nicely; the film is aesthetically pleasing at the very least. The film's audio is a good deal more balanced than the Desperado Blu-ray release, as the action scenes pack a considerable punch but don't overwhelm the quieter dialogue scenes. This is a busy, compelling track from start to finish. In terms of supplements, you get the My Scenes-style "Cutting Room" feature and a MovieIQ option (meh), but everything else is ported over from the DVD: a commentary with Rodriguez, a generous batch of featurettes ("Ten-Minute Flick School," "Inside Troublemaker Studios," "Ten-Minute Cooking School," "The Anti-Hero's Journey," "Film is Dead: An Evening with Robert Rodriguez" and "The Good, the Bad and the Bloody: Inside KNB FX") and some deleted scenes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film has one ace up its sleeve: Johnny Depp's performance as Agent Sands. With El Mariachi marginalized for a good portion of the film's running time, Sands probably has more screen time than any other character. That's a good thing, as Once Upon a Time in Mexico revs to life every time he pops up onscreen. Chewing the scenery with intense relish, Depp's impossibly amoral character generates dark laughs on a regular basis. In addition, Cheech Marin (From Dusk Till Dawn) is marvelously charming during his two scenes.
Depp fans will want to give the film a look for the actor's strangely enjoyable turn, but those who enjoyed the playful Desperado may be disappointed at how clunky this large-scale follow-up is. The Blu-ray release is fine.
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Scales of Justice
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