Once Upon a Time in
review by Cynthia
Fuchs, 12 September 2003
glowers seductively, lingers in shadows, and clangs a little when he
walks (this owing to the silver epaulets on his trousers). He's the
legendary Guitar Fighter, returning once more to reap vengeance,
save Mexico, and complete Robert Rodriguez's increasingly complex
and well-financed Mariachi trilogy. If not exactly long-awaited, Once
Upon a Time in Mexico arrives in theaters thanks in part to
Quentin Tarantino: according to the film's own lore, Rodriguez was
encouraged to this completion by his good friend, who likens the
series to Sergio Leone's Man-With-No-Name Westerns.
comparison may not be so farfetched as it sounds, even if it is
premature. The Mariachi series begins with El Mariachi (1992,
newly released in a handsome Special Edition DVD), which Rodriguez
infamously made for just $7,000 (see his charming book on the
subject, Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker
With $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player), and which starred Carlos
Gallardo. Wise beyond his years, the reluctant and shockingly
super-skilled killer became a centerpiece for Rodriguez's only
partly ironic homage to the construction of legends, cultures, and
nations, a witty riff on how heroes accommodate their moments.
next installment, 1995's Desperado, cost a lot more money to
make, introduced Antonio Banderas as the charismatically gloomy hero
(explained as the dead first version's vengeance-seeking brother),
not so much providing a sequel as reprising the tale on a bigger,
more colorful canvas. Reprising the role here, Banderas brings a
combination of swaggery action and grim humor to the man called
"El (as in 'the')." As in the first two films, Once
Upon a Time begins with some storytelling, enhanced by the
sweatily low-key stylings of Belini (Cheech Marin, who heard the
story last time from Steve Buscemi) as much as by Rodriguez'
spectacularly composed images (shot on agile high definition video).
And in case there's any doubt, the film credits announce that Once
Upon a Time is "shot, chopped, and scored," as well as
written and directed by the man himself; Mr. Spy Kids is
showing off his accumulated knowledge of his business.
before, the storyteller speaks in a dimly lit, red-walled Mexican
bar, for a skeptical listener, here CIA Agent Sands (Johnny Depp, in
yet another weirdly nimble, exquisite performance -- even as a shady
CIA guy who's trying to maneuver all ends against each other, he's
utterly endearing). After hearing all about how the Mariachi won't
tolerate roguish behavior, how he shot up a joint with implacable
grace, and how he was perfectly matched with the stunning and lethal
Carolina (Salma Hayek, who appears with precious little dialogue,
only in flashbacks -- flawlessly lit and framed, of course). At the
tale's end, Sands leans back and mutters in an odd little voice,
"Welllll, that is truly unbelievable," neatly articulating
the movie's primary theme -- the interconnectedness between what is
true and what is unbelievable.
pays off Belini with a "Clash of the Titans" lunchbox full
of money (in other words, not much), in exchange for info on where
to find the Mariachi, whom he wants to hire, he says, to kill El's
very own arch-enemy, the preternaturally vicious General Marquez
(Gerardo Vigil), who happens to be responsible for Carolina's death
(and yes, that episode appears in poetic, slow-motion flashback, in
order to motivate his cataclysmic violence). Sands has his wheels in
motion, and here's no stopping them or him: when he instructs Cucuy
(Danny Trejo) to fetch the Mariachi and Cucuy hesitates, Sands
gathers up his small frame and huffs a bit to look imposing:
"Are you a Mexican," he hisses, or a Mexi-cant!?"
With that kind of challenge, you know the mission will be
film is chucky full of motley stereotypical characters, some more
interesting than others, all oversized in their ways: the drug
kingpin Barillo (Willem Dafoe) is attended by the exiled-to-Mexico
Billy (Mickey Rourke in still another offbeat cameo, wearing a
scrunched-up cowboy hat much like the one he had in Spun and
carrying a Chihuahua whose reaction shots are more emotive than
almost anyone else in the film); the AFN agents, including Sands'
cynical bedmate, Special Agent Ajedrez (Eva Mendes); the ineffectual
Presidente (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.) and his by-definition disloyal
lackey Omar (Rodolfo De Alexandre); and an ex-FBI agent, Jorge (Rubén
Blades), languishing in Mexico after never capturing Barillo, who
tortured his partner for two weeks, a fact with which Sands goads
him out of retirement ("Doesn't that tug on your old short
curlies?" he grins). To Sands, everyone is always just another
piece on the CIA's giant chessboard.
gorgeous Mariachi is surely the film's dynamic soul, as he endeavors
to stay a step ahead of those who would exploit his pain and
loyalties, alternately brooding, planning jobs with his homeboy
mariachis and "sons of Mexico" (Lorenzo [Enrique Iglesias,
who does fine] and Fideo [Marco Leonardi]), and leaping into action.
Still, every time he turns around, there is the American who would
ruin Mexico, double-crossing everyone and every ostensible ideal in
sight: indeed, during one oddball scene, Sands pops up in El's
church, playing father-confessor as Marlon Brando (his much-admired
buddy from Don Juan DeMarco ), as he half-whines,
half-whispers, "There's plenty of dough floating around,"
his version of enticement.
adroitly as it is delivered, it remains enticement that can't
possibly work with this mark. But Sands is cocky, presuming he's in
control until he learns that he can't possibly be, and even then he
holds his own, transformed into a cunning mythic figure in his own
right. Whenever the film feels like it has too much going on, which
it does frequently, or, near its end, strains to tie its many plots
together, Sands (and really, Depp) returns it to a semblance of
coherence, as if by sheer will alone. "Just walkin' my beat,
friend," he reports into his cell phone during one of his many
cell phone machinations, "Mexico's my beat, and I'm walkin'
moment too makes thematic and political points, in ways that extend
beyond the grand legend of the lonely Mariachi. Fighting to sustain
his nation against the cartels, the U.S., and the persistently
corrupt military, El and his many adversaries confront one another
(or someone, somewhere) during a huge Day of the Day showdown. The
elaborate skull costumes, floats, and puppets grant cover for the
street battles, and it can be hard to know who's shooting whom, like
in most any battle for a national and communal identity. Justly
punished for his interference, arrogance, and insistent
"vision," Sands can no longer see what's going on.
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult