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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