Once Upon A Time In Mexico

on September 12, 2003 by Wade Major
Robert Rodriguez' original "El Mariachi" was an inventive and entertaining calling card, a little movie with big ambitions sufficient to excuse many of its rougher edges. Even with some seven-figure sweetening on top of the original $7,000 investment, it was an undeniably impressive bit of guerilla cinema. In the quasi-sequel, "Desperado," Rodriguez traded in most of those indie credentials to deliver something more akin to a Latino John Woo film, casting Antonio Banderas into the title role of the gun-toting Mariachi and adding the sex appeal of Salma Hayek. It was an upgrade that fans firmly embraced, despite the more pedestrian storyline. One could expect those same fans, then, to once again open their arms for the series' third and most bombastic installment, "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," by far the most obnoxious and ill-conceived of the three.

Fans won't much care that the film's needlessly convoluted plot makes little to no sense, or that it retreads the well-worn "revenge" plot of "Desperado." What matters for this film's core audience is that lots of people get shot by lots of bullets while lots of stuff blows up.

What passes for plot here has Banderas' Mariachi summoned back into service by a crooked CIA agent (Johnny Depp) to knock off an old enemy right after that enemy knocks off Mexico's president. It's a simple enough setup until Rodriguez tangles it up with a retired FBI agent (Ruben Blades), a crime lord (Willem Dafoe), a fugitive American (Mickey Rourke) and a Mexican police woman (Eva Mendes), along with "Desperado" veterans Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin for good measure. The lovely Ms. Hayek also returns, albeit only for flashbacks. Suddenly, the double- and triple-crosses are flying faster than bullets, contorting any semblance of story into a confused, pointless mess that serves no real purpose other than to give Rodriguez an excuse for a wide assortment of hyper-violent gunfights. But even those become numbing after a while, each set piece looking more or less like the last, possessed of neither the operatic choreography of John Woo nor mythic ferocity of Sergio Leone, to whom the film superficially nods with its title. Only Johnny Depp's deadpan comic relief provides any respite from the onslaught--but it's token relief at best.

It's difficult to resist the feeling that Rodriguez has lost control of himself--his growing obsession with assuming nearly all the key creative positions on his films (production designer, editor, cinematographer, composer), as well as taking screen credit for them, suggests that he is either hopelessly insecure or staggeringly conceited. Such sins would be far less objectionable if accompanied by signs of growth or maturation as an artist, but as Rodriguez' hubris has swelled to Olympian proportions, so also have his films become hopelessly mired in adolescent exhibitionism--slapdash editing, overwrought music, jarring camerawork and embarrassingly contrived plotting--excess intended to impress, style trumping substance as if each film were being constructed as a temple to the glory of its maker. Too all but the easily deluded, however, it should fast become evident that Rodriguez's films are less temples than shanties with flashy facades.

Those who bother to stay for the film's end title crawl are forewarned of insult being added to injury: Rodriguez' name appears no fewer than six more times under such titles as "Visual Effects Supervisor," "Steadicam Operator," "Sound Effects Editor" and "Re-recording Mixer." One can only hope that little Robert someday grows up and learns to share his toys. Starring Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Enrique Iglesias, Cheech Marin, Ruben Blades and Willem Dafoe. Directed and written by Robert Rodriguez. Produced by Elizabeth Avellan, Carlos Gallardo and Robert Rodriguez. A Columbia release. Action. Rated R for strong violence and language. Running time: 102 min

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