|Disclaimer: There will be no Once upon a Time in Mexico spoilers here, but I intend to speak of plot points of the previous entries into this series, El Mariachi and Desperado, the events of which lead eventually into this sequel. If you haven’t seen El Mariachi or Desperado and wish to, don’t read this! Don't say I didn't warn you!|
Once upon a time, in Mexico, there was a Desperado who went by the name of El Mariachi and he was good. Well, he was good until Moco killed his girl and Azul ruined his life and reputation, oh, and a big bullet ripped through his hand making Mariachi-ing pretty much impossible. So El Mariachi went on a quest to destroy drug dealers and the ilk that ruined his everything and took away his precious Domino. Along the way he took many lives, started looking just like Antonio Banderas, fell in love again against all odds and even killed his big brother (in a probable homage to the final deleted episode of Still the Beaver... we miss you Wally). So... maybe he's not so good... But did I mention he gained bona-fide legendary status?
I have good news! El Mariachi is back, and he can play guitar again (he wears a leather thong over the scar), he has a new mariachi band, and he's more legendary than ever. The bad news is he has a brand new reason for revenge(!) he's more brooding than David Boreanaz (on downers and dressed as Batman) and he's just been recruited by the American CIA to take part in a questionable activity. Once Upon a Time in Mexico is the story of El Mariachi's latest and possibly final adventure, and it's just packed to the brink with story and action beyond reason. My internal reviewer revised a number of times before I finally sat down to the keyboard. At one point Once upon a time in Mexico attains the lofty heights of a five star picture, only to crash down to a lower level and lose some stars along the way. Bottom line... it's different from, but equal to the original and the first sequel.
Johnny Depp joins the party as CIA Agent Sands. He's corrupt and sadistic as they come but it's hard not to like the guy somehow. Also joining up is Willem DaFoe evoking twisted memories of Heston's Mike Vargas from Touch of Evil as the prerequisite drug lord Barillo. Enrique Iglesias is fine as El Mariachi's new Mariachi, believe it or not. I had my reservations too, but he's actually pretty good at jumping in to the action. Rubén Blades also steps up as a former colleague of Sands' and a retiree from the FBI. That Svengali Sands won't let him stay dormant for long. Most notable and welcome is Billy, a reluctant soldier of Barillo... because Mickey Rourke is a Genius! Returning to the fold is Salma Hayek who is as beautiful and as great as ever. There's a great action sequence to rival Desperado featuring she and Banderas. Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin are both also back albeit as different (but similar) characters. The cool thing here is that all of the acting is superb here. There isn't a cheesy acting moment in the whole film and all the comedy is intentional (thankfully).
Unlike some of the recent swill there really is a plot here too. El Mariachi is pulled out of semi-retirement by CIA Agent Sands, who is just shy of complete psychosis in his ego. The solo Mariachi must prove himself against a cadre of nasties before joining a plot in progress that not only includes the new object of his (clearly transient) revenge but actually goes all the way up to the highest office in Mexico. So back to the old neighborhood he goes and out comes the infamous improved case of Azul (a welcome site for fans). Sands recruits just about anyone else he can get too from the bottom to the top to the middle just to make sure that everything goes just as he planned. But does it? Let's just say there are some Dutchmen throwing wooden shoes into the occasional machine-work!
This is truly a well thought out and complex film showing a maturity for director, writer Robert Rodriguez . Here he tries a multitude of new things and really balances the multiple facets well here. Perhaps the Spy Kids franchise was good for him beyond simply a paycheck. The irreverent attitude that he and Quentin Tarantino et al. helped create is seen from the opening credits alone. When the opening credits state "Shot Chopped and Scored by Robert Rodriguez" you get an idea what you're in for. It's just great to see some of the old gang again, and it almost feels like a homecoming. The new additions add not only dimensions but also tension and quite a lot of laughs (primarily revolving around Depp who meshes perfectly with Sands). Los Lobos makes no appearance in the soundtrack, replaced not just by Rodriguez but also Antonio himself and even a song penned for Sands by Johnny Depp. The music is just amazing from stem to stern. It's a well-acted well shot and well scored action picture that never feels tired.
But hold your breath 'cause here comes the cold water. In the last act the bubble bursts, not just for the best laid plans of mice and men, but for the film itself. I picture Rodriguez in his silly hat with the grand-ma of all bicycle pumps filling the plot full of story until it just explodes at the pressure. What follows in the final act is a series of new and mostly unnecessary sub plots that mostly end up fizzling. It's not even an orchestrated chaos, but a rather poorly controlled one. There is an entire new story line featuring Sands that not only seems impossible, but doesn't go much of anywhere nor adds any point. The blood and death of Desperado are back in a big way and not much for the better. Primarily this shows that Rodriguez had just a few too many good ideas for coherence. It's clear that he had some excellent visuals in mind, and yeah, they make it to the screen, but it appears that the entire final act surrounding Depp is simply an excuse to feature some of the stunning visuals he had planned. The ending is decent enough but the last twenty minutes pretty well put a bloodletting on what could otherwise have been a perfect film.
Well there is one more possibility. There is a very real possibility that Rodriguez intends to spin Sands off into his own franchise. It might just be a brilliant idea, and Depp is wonderful as the character. I can see Sands going rogue and traveling around like his own psychotic version of Zatoichi. Ben Affleck ain't got nothin' on this Daredevil! It might make that final act make more sense, but as it stands, it's just an excuse for more blood and guts without a plot to prop them up skeletally. It almost feels as if both this film and the previous entry are trying to make up for the comparative bloodlessness of the first film. The balance is tipped almost too far though as the improvement of the special effects make for more capability for graphic scenes of more red dye than a convention of Lucy Ball impersonators. The film is pretty cartoonish like a western send up throughout but the last twenty minutes seem like an experiment by Rodriguez to push the boundaries of good taste in the name of fun. And it's fun all right... but it could also be, well, better... like the first half was.
Make no mistake, this isn't for the kids. Not just because of the swearing or the violence is this a restricted picture, but there is one particular scene in which a procedure is performed on a major character that was so sickening that it had me squirming in my chair like an oyster on a cracker. Again, it's sensational, but on the other hand... it's sensational. Lastly, as good as they are the movie plays as if it was shot around both Hayek's and Dafoe's busy schedules. Specifically Dafoe's Barillo character is pretty obviously played by another actor for the second half of the film. Is the Green Goblin too big for his Britches? Mickey Rourke isn't... but then... Mickey Rourke is a Genius!
The visual effects, as I've mentioned are great and seamless, as is the directing and fight choreography. As the majority of Mexico City breaks into violence at one point this is pretty well needed. There are a few visual effects here and there that could have fallen flat but remained amazing. Banderas' fight sequences as well as his very presence on screen really make all the difference. He's amazing in the role he does better now than ever. From a balcony swinging escape with Hayek to a repeat of the mariachi assault seen similarly in Desperado it's dead on. It's interesting to see a new take on the Mariachi guitar (that actually gets played this time) and those famous guitar cases holding more tricks than a Nevada Brothel next to a UNLV branch.
I say that taken for all with all Once upon a Time in Mexico is equal to El Mariachi and Desperado at Three and one half stars out of five. You might like it if you're a fan of the first two movies and would like to see where all this goes (while leaving the door open to sequels and spin-offs) and you can take the red mists... You might not like it if you can't stand the sight of blood... or you just don't get the Johnny Depp sarcasm. It's a very good film, but it ends up being a disappointment because the second half can't equal the first. Visually stunning and filmically compelling are two vastly different bags. Now, if you'll excuse me, I want to practice shooting my booze bottles and playing my guitar. I figure if I show up outside Rodriguez' window with a guitar and a gun in black leather, he's bound to be so impressed he'll give me a part in the next film be it a Mariachi or a Sands film... Though usually I get arrested when I do that for some coincidental reason. Ho hum!