Once Upon A Time In Mexico (2003)

Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez

“Are you a Mexican, or a Mexican’t?”

The Disc

The focus is very much on Johnny Depp on the cover of this disc, unlike the El Mariachi/Desperado box set which put Antonio Banderas front and centre (despite him not appearing in the original).

He’s here, but in the background – even Salma Hayek gets more of a show on this cover than the actual Mariachi.

Contents-wise, we get a Rodriguez commentary and deleted scenes, along with a handful of featurettes looking at his Troublemaker Studios, his love of shooting digitally and the legendary KNB FX team.

You’ve also got the terrific Ten Minute Cooking School, which teaches you how to make Puerco Pibil – the slow-cooked pork dish Depp’s character orders throughout the film. I’ve actually followed this recipe a few times, and it’s been pretty good – though I’ve never been shot after serving it up, so it can’t have been perfect.

The blurb describes this as the finale to the “pulp Western trilogy”, which actually fits it pretty well.

Why Did I Get This?

Mainly just to complete the trilogy, rather than out of any real love for the film.

I don’t remember disliking it, but I do remember it feeling like an odd, muddled mess of a film – very glossy, but lacking the scrappy charm of the first two installments.

It looked great, of course, and had one hell of a cast – Depp, Rourke, Mendes and Dafoe were all riding pretty high at time of its release. I’m curious to see this again, rather than looking forward to it, but let’s see if it exceeds expectations.

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will include aspects of the film which could be considered spoilers, so if you want to avoid them, scroll straight down to the next heading.

Right from the off we’re in Desperado territory, with Cheech Marin taking the Steve Buscemi role and telling tall tales of El Mariachi to Johnny Depp’s CIA agent in a Mexican bar. Marin’s character wears an eyepatch, so I remember spending more time than necessary trying to work out if he’s playing the same guy who got shot in the head in the previous film, but nope, just a mate of Rodriguez dropping in for a few days work.

It’s unclear how many years have passed since the previous movie, which is fitting considering it was unclear how many years had passed before the original too, but El Mariachi is now considered a sort of urban legend, rumoured to have hung up his guns after his beloved wife (Salma Hayek), and daughter were murdered by the evil General Marquez – the same man Depp’s Agent Sands is backing to lead a coup d’etat and overthrow the president.

Within just a few minutes, we’re given a very broad sketch of the plot, as well as an action sequence featuring Antonio Banderas and Hayek (neither of whom appear to have aged in the eight years since their first pairing), taking apart a bar full of soldiers.

As they’re shooting, stabbing and smashing the place up, Marin’s explaining Hayek is “the most drop-dead gorgeous woman you’ll ever see”, and Banderas is “a myth, a legend”, in a way to introduce new viewers to the Mariachi mythos but here’s part of my first problem with the film.

Any movie whose title begins ‘Once Upon A Time In…’ really sets itself out as an epic, and it’s clear that’s what Rodriguez was aiming for here. But when you’ve got so many plates spinning and pieces in play, you really need an epic runtime to give everything room to breathe, otherwise it feels rushed – and that’s where this falls down.

Out of necessity and time limitations, we’re presented not so much with well-drawn characters throughout this movie, but with a series of ciphers or cardboard characters who are pretty much exactly what they appear and exist to to be allies or obstacles. They’re white hats and black hats, and the few characters who veer into grey areas aren’t given the time to really explore it, as we’ve got whip along to the next shootout and keep the plot moving.

There are exceptions, to some extent, such as Reuben Blades’ retired FBI agent, recruited by Sands to gain access to the cartel for… some reason or other. He knows the cartel tortured and killed his partner, but was never able to take down his murderers while he was on the job so joins Depp’s weird little crusade for personal revenge. It’s a good idea, and he does his best with it, but so much of his turmoil is vocalised in asides to himself I couldn’t help thinking it could’ve been done more neatly with a little more time and another pass at the script.

Likewise, Micky Rourke is tired of working for the cartel, and willing to return to the US to face justice for his crimes, but we spend more time finding out about his love for his little dog (named Moco, just like the villain from El Mariachi – and the Spanish word for bogey), than we do exploring his angst. He gets one decent monologue, but again, it feels rushed.

We know El Mariachi is haunted by his past, because when we meet him he’s living a lonely life alongside a village of guitar makers, and we’re treated to a whole bunch of flashbacks throughout the movie to his life with Hayek. They were happy, despite being constantly on the run from Marquez (who Marin suggests is another former flame – that’s two baddies on the bounce she’s been connected with), and getting into scrapes and escapades before settling down and having a daughter.

But of course, they’re both dead from the moment the movie starts and we only see them in flashback. Carolina’s name, and the name of their daughter, is never spoken. She’s up there on a pedestal, serving not really as a character, just as a memory or an ideal for Banderas to fight for, the same way someone might fight for a cause or a flag… and that’s where we get a bit of the romantic Rodriguez we last saw lamenting the loss of Mexican musical heritage two films ago.

Once Upon A Time… is a bit of a love letter to the people, idea and history of Mexico. Depp’s plan is to overthrow the president, but El Mariachi believes El Presidente is a good man who wants to stand up for his people against the tyranny of the drug cartel and the interference of the CIA.

What’s more, he believes the people of Mexico are ready to stand up against the coup and fight for what’s right, and that’s why he recruits his fellow guitarists/gunmen to his cause – not to back Depp’s play, but to ensure a good man and a great nation prevails. As if the patriotism isn’t clear enough, they even introduce themselves to the president as “Sons Of Mexico” as they’re rescuing him.

Oh yeah, there are two new mariachi in this one, each with their own special guitar case – Marco Leonardi’s drunken comic relief Fideo has a single-use remote control case with a bomb in it, which he uses to blow up a jeep filled with bad guys, while Enrique Iglesias’ Lorenzo packs a flamethrower in his. Yes, that Enrique Iglesias.

Things just… happen, for no reason other than to start a set piece. Case in point – we’re in a flashback, Banderas and Hayek wake up in a fifth floor hotel room, happy. Until they realise that – despite both of them being ultimate badasses and more than capable of looking after themselves – someone has sneaked into their room in the night and chained them together then buggered off and left them to discover their predicament several hours later. At which point a dozen soldiers fire machine guns at them and they perform an admittedly impressive escape swinging down the building, onto a bus (a gag which was written for Desperado but too expensive but also echoes the zipline/bus gag from El Mariachi), then jumping away from a massive explosion.

In another ‘okay, I guess this is happening now’ moment, Rodriguez stalwart Danny Trejo’s Cucuy – who up until the halfway point of the film has been working for Depp – announces he’s no longer going to put up with Depp’s shit, and will instead offer his services (and Banderas’ head), to the cartel. A frantically-shot and edited shootout, motorbike and car chase ensues, Banderas is captured, Trejo is murdered by the cartel for his efforts.

If you don’t pay too much attention, it all makes perfect sense.

And while we’re on about the cartel, following hot on the heels of Desperado’s Joaquim de Almeida, it’s led by that well-known Mexican actor… Willem Dafoe. Speaking Spanish and wearing fake tan. Now obviously, Dafoe is always ace, but casting him as a Mexican drug lord seemed a little off at the time and feels a little off 18 years later.

He’s having a good time in the role, but again, it’s your standard boo-hiss panto villain – ordering Mickey Rourke to cut off his piano teacher’s fingers because he made a bad joke – closer to El Mariachi’s Moco than Desperado’s Bucho, and again you can’t help but think with another pass at the script and a little more time to play with the character, he’d be a lot more interesting rather than just another baddie.

In fairness, Gerardo Vigil’s General Marquez fares even worse than Dafoe – he barely gets a line, just snarls, points and shoots, and yet he’s treated as some kind of supervillain. Again, this is due to his history with El Mariachi, but the most satisfying thing about seeing him get his comeuppance isn’t seeing Banderas shoot him, but the over-the-top way it’s done (with a computer generated shotgun blast shattering his knees to the bone before getting a bullet in the brain).

Eva Mendes also keeps popping up in the cast, playing Depp’s ex and a local police officer who is eventually revealed to be Dafoe’s daughter and betrays Depp to take over the family business. She does well with what little she has to work with, and she’s a strong female character, but it’s not her show.

I’ve barely mentioned Johnny Depp’s Agent Sands so far, which I realise now is odd, considering he’s pretty much the central character in this movie. I remember a review at the time said – I’m paraphrasing – El Mariachi was almost an afterthought in his own film, and from the cover to the opening shot, to the character driving the entire plot, this is really a Johnny Depp vehicle.

Between his love of daft disguises (a running gag with a fake arm is fun, he wears a variety of false facial hairpieces, impersonates Marlon Brando and at one point he literally wears a t-shirt emblazoned with CIA while conducting a secret meeting at a rigged bullfight), and his mix of ruthlessness and goofiness, Sands is the closest thing to a fully fleshed-out character we have. It’s unclear how much of that Depp brought to the role himself (though I’d wager quite a lot), but the image of him gunfighting in the town square after he’s lost his eyes feels like Rodriguez is once again aiming for iconic and more or less hitting the mark.

Rodriguez spoke at length about his discovery of digital film ahead of production (thanks to George Lucas during production of Attack Of The Clones), and the freedom and inventiveness it allowed on this set, and Once Upon A Time… feels very much like a filmmaker experimenting with a new toy and a bunch of friends.

This is the film where he’s earned the credit ‘Shot, Chopped and Scored by Robert Rodriguez’, as well as ‘Written and Directed by…’, and that air of confidence and his newfound freedom away from the limitations of shooting on film gives the film an undeniable swagger that can’t be faked.

But it’s coupled with editing and cinematography tricks he’s learned over a decade which lets him shoot – for example – a Day Of The Dead festival that looks much bigger than it is, or shoot conversations and action scenes between actors who weren’t even on set at the same time.

Yes, the coup and the uprising might happen surprisingly quickly, yes the characters might just be sketches, and yes it feels more than a little rushed. But Rodriguez has earned this swagger, and he’s got the chops to back it up.

By the time Banderas kisses the presidential sash he’s wearing while walking alone along another anonymous Mexican highway and the credits roll, you can pretty much imagine Rodriguez sitting back in his seat as if to say ‘what do you think to that?’.

Whether you love it or hate it, there’s no denying Once Upon A Time In Mexico offers spectacle and excitement in its brief runtime, and while it might not be an entirely satisfying movie, you can trace the development of a filmmaker over the course of the trilogy, and that’s exciting too.

Thoughts On The Film

I remembered this being a big mess and a bit of a disappointment, but watching it back I think it holds up a bit better than I gave it credit for. It’s still far from perfect, but just about hangs together.

At 97 minutes, it’s pretty lean, and everything happens fast by necessity – with exposition dumps, flashbacks and flashforwards, in a way it actually reminded me a little of 1978’s The Big Sleep. When everything’s happening at this kind of breakneck pace, you pretty much strap in for the ride and try not to overthink it.

While it lacks some of the scrappy charm of the first two entries in the trilogy it captures the enthusiasm of a filmmaker who adores his craft and is excited to discover new, digital technology which he’ll take forward in new projects.

It’s an entertaining enough ride to round off the trilogy, but it’s ultimately less satisfying than its two predecessors.

Verdict

Better than I remembered, but an exciting muddle of a film.

2 thoughts on “Once Upon A Time In Mexico (2003)

Add yours

  1. You have worded it perfectly in the review as I too had a mixture of feelings watching it again. Disappointment as let’s face it…we wants Desperado 2, bigger, better and more badass (if that’s possible) – but this just didn’t quite scratch that itch. Great review and thank you for all the fantastic nuggets of facts and info!

    Like

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