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Once Upon a Time in Mexico By Matt Singer
Once Upon a Time in Mexico, I’m sad to report, has to be one of the most disappointing films of 2003. By no means is it amongst the worst of the year, but few films have had such effective, exciting marketing, with such a talented cast and a director working in his element, and such a mediocre final product. I was so excited to see Once Upon a Time that I went back and watched El Mariachi and Desperado to be entirely familiar with the characters. After enjoying both immensely, it feels like these characters were let down almost as much as I was.
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The El Mariachi character is a fallen man that reminds me a lot of Marvel Comics’ Punisher; he’s a former mariachi who accidentally became embroiled with some gangsters and ended up losing his ability to play guitar but gaining a guitar case full of weapons and a near super-heroic ability to use them. The start of the third movie finds him living a quiet life in a quiet Mexican town (though he has inexplicably regained his musical talents). He is recruited by mysterious CIA Agent Sands, played with a quirky flair by Hollywood’s newest megastar, Johnny Depp. Here he takes the Sands character and really infuses him - through costumes, hair, character tics (which, according to an interview in Entertainment Weekly, were all inventions of Depp) - gives him a depth that might otherwise have been missing.
Sands wants The Mariachi to stop an assassination attempt on the Mexican President by men hired by drug lord Barillo (Willem Dafoe). Meanwhile, all these factions and several others including a retired FBI agent, and some police start gunning for one another. Quickly the double- and triple-crosses start flying with such frequency that it soon becomes clear that it doesn’t matter who is doing what to whom, and to some degree this is a big exciting action movies and who cares about the plot twists. But there are so many characters and plot threads and people craving revenge on other people that the film becomes completely unfocused; Banderas (who doesn’t look like he’s aged a day in the 8 years since the last picture) seems like a mopey outsider in his own movie, and the second-billed Salma Hayek appears in about three scenes. One could make a convincing argument that its really Sands, not the Mariachi, that is the main character, since he incites the action, goes through the most changes in the film and draws most of our emotions.
The flip side to this problem is that, much to my surprise, the action in Once Upon a Time falls completely short of expectations. Aside from a strong, tongue-in-cheek motorcycle and car chase, the gun battles are rote and choppy and never as exciting as any in Desperado. Though there are some really memorable images in the film (most involving Banderas) few of the sequences really break any ground or even match the feats of Rodriguez’s previous films. Desperadofelt like the best John Woo movie he’d never made; Once Upon a Time in Mexico feels like the crummy movies John Woo’s been forced to make since coming to the United States.
Rodriguez is also the talented creator of the Spy Kids series, which I saw and enjoyed the first two films of, and he is famous for his one man band filmmaking style. On Once Upon a Time in Mexico he wrote, directed, scored, edited, and shot the film; the last being particularly impressive because Rodriguez shot the movie on high-end digital cameras and proven that, for the most part, they can keep up with standard 35mm film. But if Once Upon a Time in Mexico is remembered favorably, it will only be for technical accomplishments and perhaps for another fine Depp performance in a career of them. In any other way it is a disappointment; as an action movie, as a Robert Rodriguez picture, as a finale to the otherwise outstanding El Mariachi trilogy.