Once Upon a Time in Mexico
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

El Mariachi and Desperado are very different movies. True, they tell similar stories, but in terms of tone, they're miles apart. While the low budget El Mariachi (made for only $7,000) gave us a lead character who stumbled into the role of action hero, Desperado gave us a full-fledged superman capable of remarkable virtuosic movements with a shotgun or guitar. While El Mariachi placed its action set pieces in a realistic context, Desperado went for over-the-top, choreographed action sequences of operatic intensity.

Critics lavished praise on El Mariachi, but they largely turned a cold shoulder to director Robert Rodriguez's sequel/remake. Gone was the wonder of seeing an unsuspecting common man being pulled into a situation of deadly consequences and then seeing him survive through his quick-witted actions — and a tractor trailer load of luck. And in its place Rodriguez opted for a hero who is fully aware of his badass-ness. The difference is disconcerting and disappointing. And as a result, Desperado became just another noisy action movie made in a style that slavishly aped the hyperactive stylistics of Hong Kong cinema's crime genre.

Not surprisingly (but disappointingly), Rodriquez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico follows the formula of Desperado, not El Mariachi. Antonio Banderas returns as the spaghetti western-esque hero who just wants to be left alone to strum his guitar and mourn the loss of his lover (Salma Hayek). But everyone wants to either kill him or use him. So his life now has no peace.

Rodriguez doesn't attempt to instill this new episode of the "El Mariachi" saga with anything even remotely resembling realism. El can defeat armies of opponents with ease. Infuriatingly, El doesn't even have to make intelligent decisions about how to fight battles. All he must do is raise his gun and pull the trigger. In one scene, he stands in the middle of a plaza shooting the legion of henchmen who challenge him. Instead of looking for exciting ways to get El through the scene alive, Rodriquez simply has El stand in the open, shooting anything that moves. So much for imagination.

"Shot, chopped and scored by Robert Rodriguez" boasts the film's credits. Filmed on high-definition video, Once Upon A Time in Mexico is a beautifully crafted film. Particularly impressive are several camera shots — now capable with the digital technology — that seem to show actual mayhem taking place, such as a double-barreled shotgun blast that rips apart the knees of a man or an out-of-control automobile that slams into a man and crushes him between another vehicle. These shots are startlingly realistic. However, the plot and characters that they serve are so outlandish that they make Sergio Leone look like a model of restraint.

When Rodriguez does indeed utilize a little imagination, as when El and his lover — handcuffed together — escape a brigade of killers by swinging down the facade of a hotel, one person grabbing a railing or beam and holding tight while the other swings down to a new lower position, in sequences like this, the movie begins to come to life. But sequences like this are few and far between.

Luckily, however, the movie has several additional characters who fare much better than El, namely a corrupt CIA agent named Sands played by Johnny Depp and a retired FBI agent named Jorge played by Rueben Blades. Depp is clearly having a blast bringing his character to life. As in Pirates of the Caribbean, he gives us a fey, off-beat characterization that goes against the current stable of testosterone-infused action heroes who strike masculine poses. No, Depp is more interested in verbal combat and unusual character quirks. Occasionally, he sounds like he's riffing on Brando. But for the most part, he goes where most male actors fear to tread, into a world of flamboyant sophistication and menace.

In contrast, Rueben Blades looks so damn good here because he delivers the only realistic performance in the movie. He's a retired FBI agent manipulated to serve Sands (Depp). We see the tiredness in his eyes. We know he doesn't want to be involved, but he has little choice in the matter. Particularly impressive is a scene where Jorge (Blades) is supposed to shoot one of the villain's henchmen (Mickey Rourke), but he feels it's a trap. We see him hesitate, turn, and back away, but then his resolution hardens and he steps forward again. Blades survives such uncertainty through the melancholy air he gives his reluctant combatant.

The movie's best sequence might belong to a blinded Depp. In this scene, he confronts two thugs across a plaza. Armed to the gills, he raises his weapons, as if he has extra-sensory powers that will allow his bullets to find their marks. He pulls the trigger and sends a blast of bullets across the plaza. He pulls the trigger again and we see sparks light up the wall behind the thugs — for all the bullets have missed their targets! The thugs laugh — as does the audience. Surprisingly, it's in the smaller scenes such as this that Once Upon a Time in Mexico comes to life (as when Depp rigs a bull fight). But the action sequences that come courtesy of Banderas's El are noisy and overly familiar. They whirl past in an annoying profusion of motion.

Rodriguez appears to have been seduced by the high-definition technology that he uses to keep the film in perpetual motion. But it's in the underplayed moments that the movie comes to life. Maybe if Rodriguez had the wisdom to chuck the El Mariachi character in favor of Depp and Blades, he'd have ended up with a more compelling movie. As is, Once Upon a Time in Mexico aims for epic-style sweep and all too often falls flat.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Columbia Pictures
Movie Web site: Once Upon a Time in Mexico



Photo credits: © 2003 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.