ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Johnny Depp, Salma Hayek, Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Rubén Blades, Enrique Iglesias, Marco Leonardi, Cheech Marin, Gerardo Vigil, Pedro Armendariz, Julio Oscar Mechoso
MPAA Rating: (for strong violence, and for language)
Running Time: 1:41
Release Date: 9/12/03
Review by Mark Dujsik
There's a point in Once Upon a Time in Mexico where you just have to give up following the convoluted plot and let the film work its magic on you. Actually, I do a disservice in calling it a film, as the credits so amply dub it "A Robert Rodriguez Flick." Rodriguez again takes his multifaceted role as director, writer, cinematographer, editor, composer, producer, production designer, and visual effects supervisor, taking the "theory" out of the auteur theory. This flick highlights everything we've come to expect and get a kick out of from Rodriguez ever since he came on to the scene with El Mariachi, from which Once Upon a Time in Mexico is fashioned, over a decade ago. This time around, Rodriguez has given us a stylish, posturing tableau Western, based on his own mythic character, filled with full-blooded action set pieces, and set against the continuation of Mexico's political strife. What most consistently keeps our attention, though, is Rodriguez' cast of colorful stock characters, which runs the gamut from the vengeful mariachi to the CIA agent playing every side to the career rat of a presidential assistant to the retired G-man looking to settle an old score to Mickey Rourke.
We begin the tale with Sands (Johnny Depp), a CIA operative working in Mexico to eliminate El Presidente (Pedro Armendariz) and restore balance to the country, as he puts it. General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil) is preparing a coup d'état under the guidance of cartel leader Barillo (Willem Dafoe), but Sands doesn't want the military in charge either. So to counteract the revolution, he finds the legendary Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), who has incentive for revenge against Marquez. Sands hires him to kill the general, but only under the condition that he does so after the coup. He also has Cucuy (Danny Trejo) as a watchdog for the Mariachi, to make sure he stays in line. To clean up the rest, he tips off eager AFN agent Ajedrez (Eva Mendes) to Barillo and sics retired FBI man Jorge (Rubén Blades), whose partner was tortured and killed by Barillo and his men, on the kingpin. The Mariachi enlists the help of old friends and mariachis Lorenzo (Enrique Iglesias) and Fideo (Marco Leonardi), and Jorge sets his sights on Barillo's associate Billy (Mickey Rourke).
With this many people and such intimate and far-reaching motivations involved, it's no surprise that eventually the plan starts to stumble. The script has a difficult task of not only spending an appropriate amount of time with each character but also of keeping each and every ensuing twist understandable to the plot as a whole. Rodriguez succeeds in the former but falls short in the latter. The plot eventually becomes far too convoluted to keep up with, but by that time, Rodriguez has made it so that we don't care. We understand that the scheme is falling apart at the seams, and that's all that is really necessary. Instead, the characters take focus, and they create an eclectic portrait of corruption and ideals. Johnny Depp leads the forces of crime and dishonesty with his typically offbeat portrayal of Sands. I can't think of another actor who would play an undercover CIA agent who advertises his affiliation on a T-shirt. Rodriguez' dark humor is never more prevalent than in the events following Sands' poetic justice. Willem Dafoe also gets to chew some scenery as Barillo, baring his teeth like a dog under the bandages of cosmetic surgery. And there are the small characters, too, like the presidential assistant (played by Julio Oscar Mechoso) who vomits after selling out his boss and then comments, "This happens every time."
The last act becomes a politically charged battle where devotion to country and freedom is the only value worth fighting for. The transition works, because these heroes are molded from the vein of hero that believes in such fights. Jorge, for example, is fighting for justice, but the added twist is the way in which he convinces himself that he's still with the FBI. I appreciated the old-habits-are-hard-to-break gimmick of having him continuously talk to himself as though he's in contact with his backup. It's a little detail, but one that hints at a deeply rooted obsession. The central archetype is, of course, El Mariachi, a hero of mythic proportions in this world. He fights for the memory of two women, his murdered wife Carolina (Salma Hayek) and daughter. We see the Mariachi and his wife at work in flashbacks; she has become legend as well. Most vengeful men remember the quiet moments with their deceased loved ones, but his first memory is of the time they were chained together and had to progressively drop down the side of a building. It only fits that during the climax he becomes a warrior for his country, draped in the Mexican flag.Yes, there are also actions sequences scattered throughout the story, but they're perfunctory to the characters and plot. Rodriguez handles them with skill and lots of rapid-fire cutting (he appropriately credits his editing as "chopping"), but the movie probably would have worked equally well without them. That's not a knock on the gunfights but a compliment to Rodriguez' ability to shape a ripping piece of escapism without relying on bullets and bodies flying. Once Upon a Time in Mexico owes more to pulp Westerns than to action movies, and it's more absorbing as a result.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.