Review by Paul Stathakis | 2003

The man with the guitar returns

Writer-director-producer-editor-composer Robert Rodriguez brings the Spanish fever that is the “El Mariachi” trilogy to an extravagant conclusion with “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” If you’ve seen and admired “El Mariachi” and ”Desperado”, Rodriguez’s two previous lower-budgeted flicks, chances are you’re going to appreciate this third Leone-like picture. It includes famous western-inspired facial close-ups, quick edits, scorching Mexican rhythms, and standoffs galore with the search for the fastest gunman in the west type of quandary. Only it’s a mess of a story.

Trigger-happy. That is the general behavior of every character in a Robert Rodriguez tale. Everyone has a gun that they are able to grip, aim, and shoot, but no one ever hits the target quite like legendary guitarist El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas). He is a cross between Muhammad Ali and Clint Eastwood when it comes to accuracy and speed – especially at gun-drawing moments. His killing instincts never fail him. And so, Mariachi wanders around Mexico in self-exile after the murder of his wife Carolina (Salma Hayek, who only appears in flashbacks) and his daughter, always looking over his shoulder.

Yes, “Once Upon A Time in Mexico” feeds off all these stimulating sensations. The thought of a third “El Mariachi” certainly generates loads of excitement and anticipation. Unfortunately, the movie never surpasses thought. It remains a fantasy of a perfect action film and a reminder of how good ideas eventually get played out – even when polished to near perfection. It lacks the magic flow of its predecessors and I’m not talking about the scenario or the mood. I’m referring to Rodriguez’s storytelling technique.

In “Desperado” the story was painted in a more comical fashion. It was told in the style of a Tarantino film. Looking back at the dialogue, I recall a scene in which Steve Buscemi introduces Mariachi’s character. He says, “And in walks the biggest Mexican I have ever seen. Big as shit! Just walks right in like he owns the place, and nobody knew quite what to make of him or quite what to think. But there he was and in he walked.” This is not what we get in ”Once Upon A Time In Mexico.” This setup is a more straightforward-type-act, where the writer assumes that you know exactly what is going on. It is that sort of continuation and it works here, since Rodriguez isn’t really concerned with plot.

If you happen to be an avid fan of the series, then you’ll be among the first to notice severe inconsistencies in the story, like deceased characters from “Desperado” mysteriously returning here.

With a fistful of additional dollars this time around, Rodriguez not only put his $30 million budget towards a good-looking cast but a talented one. Johnny Depp is one of the new faces to dip into Rodriguez’s salsa mix. Having recently portrayed a capricious pirate in the summer hit “Pirates of the Caribbean”, Depp takes on a less challenging role as C.I.A. Agent Sands, who is on the lookout for El Mariachi. Thanks to Cheech Marin, who once again stars as a chatty bartender and who is one of the characters to unintelligibly reappear, Sands locates Mariachi and offers him a little work. It is a clean-up kind of job. As the story has it, a drug lord named Barillo (Willem Dafoe) has planned a coup to overthrow the president. Mariachi’s job: to stop Barillo and his men. But it just so happens that a ruthless General named Marquez, who is the man responsible for the death of Mariachi’s family, is also implicated.

I like Rodriguez’s style. I was impressed with the way he manipulated image in Desperado and I was stunned by his work in “Once Upon A Time In Mexico.” This is a more mature, more advanced, and certainly more imaginative Rodriguez at work. But bright colors still light up his scenes, fast cuts still maintain their rapid pace, music still adds more movement to them, and the actors do a fine job of not overacting the dialogue. Add to that, the beauty of Mexico.

Some parts are really amusing. The opening, I thought, was eye-grabbing and beautiful. It is the image of Mariachi strolling the town while playing the guitar, as the opening credits overlap the images. It is a bright and gracious moment that confirms Rodriguez’s ability to frame scenes exceptionally. And when the film’s title appears, it feels just right. We get vibes that we’d get in an epic motion picture. In this case, it is the feel of us, viewers, entering the gates of Mexico with a heroic figure that is going to lead us into a wild escapade. It’s enthralling how some of Rodriguez’s simpler scenes could spark such reactions and thoughts in his audience.

”Desperado” was made in 1992. Now, 11 years later, we get “Once Upon A Time In Mexico.” At one point in his career, it seemed like Rodriguez was trying out the spaghetti westerns, but then he went on to direct films like “The Faculty” and the “Spy Kids” trilogy. While he is making good films, from a directing standpoint, and playing all genres, I’m not quite sure where he is going from here. But what if he continued to diversify by letting go of his wild imagination and telling a more realistic crime story? Then, he might advance to the next level where specific directors are considered pioneers of cinema.


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