Screen Reviews

Once Upon A Time In Mexico

The possible premises of Once Upon A Time In Mexico are the stuff of dreams… at least, the stuff of my dreams. Just imagine creating your own South-of-the-border Western – of both the Peckinpah and the spaghetti varieties – starring modern counterparts of Eastwood, Van Cleef, Fonda, Bronson and Wallach. Adhering somewhat to El Mariachi history, casting would begin with Antonio Banderas, Cheech Marin, and Quentin Tarantino; for wacked-out sicko bad-guys I’d perhaps add Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, and, oh yeah, Christopher Walken, because he’s the prerequisite wacko in every movie made these days. Though Selma Hayek was tantalizing in Desperado, I’d need two more exotic, dangerous beauties in this follow-up; I’d beg Catherine Bell and Monica Bellucci to lend their talents.


Then I’d go about crafting a masterpiece in the vein of the movie’s namesake, Once Upon A Time in the West, developing each character in blood-soaked vignettes. Of course, in the final chapter, all the characters and storylines converge in a dusty hell-hole, where bullets fly until one man is left standing.


Director Robert Rodriguez came close to re-creating my winning formula with his (supposedly) final installment of the El Mariachi trilogy. In his version, the six-gun guitarist (Banderas) finds himself in the midst of a maelstrom of coups, counter-coups and more betrayals than a high-stakes game of Risk.

Set some years after Desperado’s town-emptying mayhem, the film finds El Mariachi mourning the loss of his wife (Hayek) and daughter – the victims of an ambush that he barely survived. His would-be assassin, drug lord Barillo (Dafoe) still wants him dead. Barillo also wants Mexico’s Presidente – a surprisingly uncorrupt leader – dead, and is carefully planning a coup. Meanwhile, a retired FBI agent (Ruben Blades), is on Barillo’s trail for the murder of his former partner, and leans on the kingpin’s Chihuahua-carrying henchman (a puffy-faced, barely recognizable Rourke) to rat out his boss. Representing Mexican law enforcement, a female narco cop (Eva Mendez) is assigned to a task force dedicated to apprehending Barillo. Stirring up this hornet’s nest of plots and sub-plots is weasely, three-armed CIA agent Sands (Johnny Depp), aided by a traditionally doomed informant (Cheech Marin).


Sorry, no Walken, Tarantino, Bell, or Bellucci to be found in Rodriguez’ production, but his old friend Danny Trejo does return to the screen, sans throwing knives.

As the vicious and culturally ignorant Sands continues to play more than two sides against the middle, El Mariachi – who has tried to put his shotgun-toting past behind him – rekindles the desire for revenge upon Barillo. After recruiting a back-up pair of mariachis – who also happen to have suspicious guitar cases – the brooding gunfighter finds himself in the role of Presidential bodyguard as the coup unfolds.


Unfortunately, the key to making a Western epic is time – say, three hours or so. With the 97-minute Once Upon A Time In Mexico, Rodriguez seems to have been discouraged from subjecting American audiences to such a lengthy cinematic experience. He sacrifices Desperado’s swift, clever pacing for story development; conversely, character and plot development are sacrificed for essential action scenes. The result is a choppy mess of sorts, where everyone and everything loses its potency. Dafoe and Rourke are hardly given time for their trademarked craziness, Hayek has just a few minutes onscreen, and Mendez’ character is about as one-dimensional as a “Wanted” poster. Even Depp – who has the juiciest role of the bunch – could have had another hilarous scene or two.

Don’t get me wrong, Once Upon A Time In Mexico is an enjoyable film, with an expectedly great Spanish-guitar soundtrack. Rodriguez once again utilizes Sam Peckinpah body-counts to underscore Sergio Leone’s laconic wit with great effectiveness; while the absurd-bordering action and dialogue are not quite as inventive as its predecessor’s, the comedic moments are nonetheless worth every penny of admission. After all, very few directors can make an audience laugh at a man being gut-shot. However, Robert Rodriguez – all of the sudden, an under-achiever – was just a bit gun-shy when it came time to pull the trigger on a could-have-been, should-have-been memorable climax to the otherwise outstanding El Mariachi saga.


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