"Are you a Mexican or a Mexi-can't?"
Here it is, writer/director/everything-else-under-the-sun Robert Rodriguez's final chapter in his "El Mariachi" saga. With Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Rodriguez brings to a close his neo-spaghetti-Western in epic form. Beginning with the renowned $6,000 El Mariachi, then jumping into its sequel, Desperado, Rodriguez has exponentially increased the flair and spectacle of these movies, ratcheting up the gunplay, the explosions, the violence (as cartoonish as it may be) and the stories. Once Upon a Time in Mexico commands the title for all of these categories, and sports its biggest asset: Johnny Depp—on fire last year, fresh off his Pirates of the Caribbean tour de force—lends a relentless cool to an already hyper-cool film saga. Depp, bolstered by a myriad of other big-name performers (Antonio Banderas, of course, whom he pretty much splits screen time with), helps Rodriguez memorably cap his defining work. Are these memories, then, fond or forgettable?
Facts of the Case
El Mariachi (Banderas), the nameless desperado with a guitar case full of guns, is adrift in Mexico. His dear wife, Carolina (Salma Hayek), has been murdered, along with their child. As such El is a broken man, slumming around, until beckoned by the corrupt C.I.A. agent Sands (Depp) to play a role in a Mexican coup. Okay, this is basically the thrust of the movie, really. Of course there are beaucoup plot tributaries springing forth from this main thread: Eva Mendes plays a Sands-lover-cum-double-crosser, Willem Dafoe as Barillo the kingpin who contributes to Sands' violent makeover, Carolina's backstory, told in abbreviated fashion, a washed-up FBI agent's (Ruben Blades) road to prominence, Barillo's right-hand man, Billy (Mickey Rourke) and his desire to free himself of corruption, the said coup and all political intricacies that entails, and a ton of smaller vignettes featuring such Rodriguez mainstays as Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin (both of whom turned up in Desperado, then turned up dead.) Oh, I almost forgot El's personal vendetta against Marquez, the evil officer who gunned down his family. Yeah, there's a heaping portion of plot here.
But, again, at the core is El and Sands, far and away the two most charismatic characters, played with glee by Banderas and Depp. Aside from the requisite action (and there is plenty of that to go around, believe you me), these two guys are the biggest attractions for the flick.
Both are anti-heroes, Sands more than El, often engaging in questionable actions to achieve their goals. And in the case of Sands, his actions are less questionable and more downright sadistic. Yet Depp plays him with such a ferocious wit, that I found myself giggling when Sands shot a cook for being too good at cooking his favorite dish. Indeed the oodles of violence on display is very tongue-and-cheek (save for the demise of a bad guy at the end, whose knees get blasted to kingdom come…yeah that was pretty gruesome.)
All plotlines intersect, be it in a very drunken manner, to the culminating revolution, rife with military onslaught, smoke and fire, and bleeding eye sockets.
When I first saw Desperado, I was underwhelmed. It started off pretty cool, but I jumped ship at the end when guys were firing rockets out of their guitar cases; it just struck me as too hokey. However, on subsequent viewings, I really got into the film, its style, and its sense of humor. The action is over-the-top, with bad guys flying hundreds of feet through the air when they get shot or blowed-up real good. Now it's hard to imagine Desperado without shoulder-launched guitar missiles. Rodriguez doesn't stray far from this feel in Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
And to that effect it works well. It is entertaining, the action set-pieces are well done and fun, and the characters here, specifically Depp's Sands, add a quirky kind of cool that elevates this movie past its predecessor. The head-scratcher is Hayek's second-billing; though she gets to participate in probably the coolest action sequence-the swinging-down-the-building-while-hancuffed-followed-by-a-jump-onto-a-moving-bus-followed-by-a-giant-fireball-her screen time is miniscule.
But, no matter even if she was in every scene and paraded around nude, she would have a hard time overshadowing Depp (actually, I take that back.) Seriously, Depp delivers a character so cool that Arthur Fonzarelli himself would be in awe. I get the feeling Rodriguez sat down with the script, intent on fashioning Sands as the picture of coolness -from the way he smokes, to his eccentricities, to his outfit. As capable as Depp is, there is no surprise that even Banderas and his El—who can jump off of twenty-foot church balconies while blowing scumbags away with his shell-loaded pistols—occupy Sands' shadow. Even the ending points to a possible story just for Sands.
One of the major news-grabbers for the movie was Rodriguez' use of high definition cameras to shoot the film. In the bonus features, the director sings the praises of this technology loud and long. Like Attack of the Clones, also filmed digitally, Once Upon a Time in Mexico failed to blow me away—as far as visuals go—in the theater. But the real pay-off comes in the DVD transfer. Like Lucas's film, Rodriguez' looks brilliant. Colors are dramatic, and details are sharp and clear. In some sequences, it really feels like the Mexican heat in bearing down on the viewer. Likewise, the sound is an aggressive 5.1 mix, though some of the gunfire seemed a bit muted in a few scenes (the church shootout in particular.)
The biggest benefit, says Rodriguez, is the ease of the process. With digital, films can be done faster, cheaper, and visions cooked up by the filmmakers can become reality "with the speed of thought."
With the bonus features, Rodriguez really opens the doors to the process of creating Once Upon a Time in Mexico. He is forthcoming, and seems to authentically enjoying spilling the beans. A quick rundown:
Ten minute flick school A very interesting featurette. Rodriguez takes the viewer though a chunk of different scenes, divulging all the secrets that went into them, many with surprising revelations. Much of the shooting—bullets, spent shells, resulting damage, and wounds—was inserted with CGI effects. Flawlessly, I might add.
Inside Troublemaker Studios Rodriguez takes us on a tour of his home-turned-multifunctional studio, showing how, with the ease of technology, everything needed to make a professional film is at his fingertips. When the credits say Once Upon a Time in Mexico was "shot, chopped, and scored" by Robert Rodriguez, they speak the truth.
The Anti-Hero's Journey A fond look at the evolution of El Mariachi, from $6,000 cult figure to multi-million dollar Hollywood film centerpiece.
Film is Dead: An Evening with Robert Rodriguez Here is Rodriguez' treatise on the benefits of digital filmmaking. Probably geared more for students of film and fans of the process. I found it interesting, however.
The remainder of the features include some, believe it or not, worthwhile deleted scenes—the highlights being some more funny bits with Sands; "Ten Minute Cooking School," where Rodriguez gives a lesson making the prolific pork dish; and a featurette on KNB's makeup effects. All in all, a bountiful arrangement here, presented by a filmmaker excited about his craft.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Okay, I liked this movie. I think that much is obvious. But what stopped me from really, really liking it was the utter convolution of the plot. There are so many characters here with so many storylines, that things just come unraveled toward the end. Here is one case where overload is a bad thing.
Want a fun time with an action movie? Here you go. Once Upon a Time in Mexico is funny, fast, and easy on the eyes. Every inch of this thing has Robert Rodriguez's fingerprints on it, and it's refreshing to see an auteur become so ensconced in the process. It's apparent everyone affiliated with the project had fun doing it, and though plot intricacies get real messy, you should have a good time sifting through them.
Hey, El, thanks for the laughs, fireballs, and weaponry. Case dismissed.
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