By Ted Pigeon
“Once Upon a Time in Mexico” is a movie that is brimming with creative energy from start to finish even though the story is lazily told. Despite the fact that the general plot lacks any coherence or interest, this film manages to overflow with invention during its amazing action sequences. It’s a movie that should be admired for its individual moments rather than the somewhat hollow whole that they add up to. In other words, this film is a pure and unmitigated guilty pleasure.
For this third and presumably final chapter of his “Mariachi” trilogy, writer-director Robert Rodriguez has assembled a more than formidable cast including the likes of Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe and of course Antonio Banderas, returning as El Mariachi. It has been a long time since the events of “Desperado,” yet Mariachi still cannot seem to get it off his mind. To the rest of the world, he is a legend from another time, a hero that is long since dead. But he lives in a small, isolated town where no one can find him, haunted by memories of the death of his wife Carolina (Salma Hayek) at the hands of the ruthless general Marquez (Gerardo Vigil).
Mariachi is sought out by CIA agent Sands (Johnny Depp), a rather unorthodox fellow who is willing to bend and even break all the rules to acquire what he needs. Sands offers Mariachi a deal that he cannot turn down: to assassinate Marquez, the man responsible for Carolina’s death, the man who he has vowed revenge against for years. Mariachi agrees because, as Sands points out, he has got nothing to live for. But this is all part of the bigger picture, which has to do with a drug lord named Barillo (Willem Dafoe), who is attempting to bring down the presidential regime in Mexico.
The plot is full of double crossings and hidden political agendas, which as a result, is why it’s hard to follow, especially given the amount of characters, all of which have something to hide. The movie can get very verbose at times, and it tends to drag during these scenes. It must be made clear that the screenplay is flawed in the sense that it is careless regarding how well the plot is organized. The screenplay has its strengths, such as the perfect dialogue, especially when combined with performances by Depp and Banderas; it often works for several humorous moments.
But the true heart of this film is its action sequences. Rodriguez is a craftsman of pure style, and this film exemplifies that perfectly. Every shot is designed to call attention to itself, essentially to show off the director’s eye for the camera. One scene in particular that stands out is a gunfight in a church, when Mariachi is unexpectedly assaulted by a half dozen hit men. During the scene, I noticed that every movement by Banderas and every motion and angle of the camera is stylistic triumph in itself, which showcases Rodriguez’s epic vision for what action sequences should be like. As a result, these scenes are full of blistering energy, a kind that few action films today have come close to achieving.
Many of the performances were quite enjoyable, inparticular Depp as the shady CIA agent who is unafraid to kill without reason, unless you would consider cooking a great meal to be a reason. Banderas also makes for a great Mariachi, as he did in “Desperado.” He hits the right note again here.
There are also a few cameos along the way , including Hayek, who somehow got top billing, and Cheech Marin. There are so many little facets and intricacies in this film that it made me realize that they deserved a better story. Rodriguez is a filmmaker that knows what he is doing, even if it may not be Oscar-worthy stuff he’s making. He is a purely visual storyteller who excels at what he does, and this comes through in all his films. I’d be interested to see what kind of work he could do if he was given a well-paced and fleshed-out screenplay.
But at least the man knows what kind of film he’s making and doesn’t once think otherwise; even the credits read “shot, chopped and scored by Robert Rodriguez.” The most interesting aspect is that even though he is poking fun at himself, his film was expertly shot, well edited and has a fine musical score. How ironic.
Given the nature of the jumpy and sometimes nonsensical plot, the film is not as enjoyable as it could have been. However, it is not nearly as bad as it could have been either. But in the end, this movie serves its purpose well and succeeds at delivering sensational action of solid entertainment.