|Once Upon a Time in Mexico
starring Johhny Depp, Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek
3 1/2 stars
review by Stephen Notley
I'm afraid I must report that Once Upon a Time in Mexico is not quite the supercool action extravaganza it might've been. There's some good stuff in there --weird performances, a couple of reasonably smashing action scene, nice touches -- but Desperado it ain't.
I mention Desperado, Robert Rodriguez's 1995 awesome action movie featuring Antonio Banderas as a pistol-packin' mariachi, just in case anybody hadn't heard that Once Upon a Time in Mexico was the sequel. It is.
Desperado is a great movie, itself a sequel/remake of Robert Rodriguez's first DIY $7000 movie, 1993's El Mariachi. El Mariachi, with its eye-popping stunts and propulsive editing, is a triumph of Rodriguez's on-the-fly filmmaking, delivering maximum movie for minimum money. When Rodriguez got the chance to sequelize/remake it in 1995, he took all the money they gave him and exploded it all over the screen, turning up every cool thing from El Mariachi while adding some fantastic new things like Salma Hayek.
So, if El Mariachi is an on-the-cheap, talent-and-guts film, and Desperado is a better-produced, better funded project where the director puts fully into play all the stuff he's learned to do when he's had to work with nothing -- what does that make Once Upon A Time in Mexico?
Well, something different. If anything, it's like the dream you'd have one night after watching El Mariachi and Desperado and some Johnny Depp movie all in a row.
The story is epic, huge, sprawling, the Rodriguez equivalent of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with political assassinations and rebellions and lots and lots of characters. But at the same time, these days Rodriguez is championing the DIY advantages of Hi-def video (as he convincingly argues on the Spy Kids 2 commentary), and Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a product of that idea. So Once Upon a Time feels more like a return to the El Mariachi style of fast-filming, cutting-in-the-camera quickness rather than the more elaborate setups of Desperado. It's more rush; less lush.
It's still pretty fun. The action scenes are a little more random and slapdash than their slickly executed equivalents in Desperado, but there are some pretty good things blowing up and people being flung back 20 feet from shotgun blasts. And it's surprisingly gory, with some unusual eye, knee and face-maulings. But in the rush-rush-rush of throwing the characters around, the glue that holds everything together kinda melts.
In Desperado, Antonio Banderas is the film. He's funny and slick and as he says, "I'm looking for a manů who calls himself Bucho. That's all. But you had to do itů the *hard way*," you really, *really* feel his frustration. In Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Antonio is mostly MIA, ensnared as he is in flashbacks to the movie that doesn't exist between Desperado and Once Upon a Time In Mexico in which he and Salma had some action scenes and got shot.
Without Antonio holding the movie together, the centre of gravity shifts to an anti-Antonio, Johnny Depp, who walks in and becomes the most entertaining thing in the movie, the second time he's done that this year after Pirates of the Caribbean.
He plays his slick, amoral CIA agent Sands with an affable, cheery psychosis, pumping silenced rounds into good cooks and pulling various fake arm tricks while hiring Antonio to hit the Mexican President. He's got some pretty great lines --"Are you a MexiCANů or a MexiCAN'T?"-- and he has way more stuff happen to his eyes than usually happens to characters in movies.
But as a total anti-hero at the center of the film, Depp is like the sun in a solar system where gravity pushes instead of pulls; that is, all the other characters are driven into the furthest reaches of the film. And there are lots of characters, make no mistake. This movie is crammed with subsidiary stars, people like Cheech Marin, playing somebody who's not the guy he played who got killed in Desperado, and Wilhem Defoe, playing a Mexican drug lord/Invisible man role, and Mickey Rourke, who gets to pout and carry a little dog around. That sort of, but not really, makes up for the fact that Salma Hayek gets maybe two scenes. With the speed and easiness of filming in Hi-Def, Rodriguez was able to get a lot of stars to show up, bang out a few days of work and go home. By the same token, though, it kind of looks like he was never able to get more than two of them on a set at any one time, and it kinda shows.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico wants to be an epic, but it's just a little too fast and cheap to make it, so instead it ends up as kind of a blur. A fairly cool blur, with some great gunplay and Johnny Deppness, but, well, as I said, it's no Desperado.