Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Once Upon a Time in MexicoWe all gotta start somewhere. Robert Rodriguez, one of the few mainstream directors who could hold his own opposite Quentin Tarantino, began his career with an extremely low-budget film called El Mariachi. He soon followed that with 1995’s Desperado. And while neither film was a cinematic masterpiece (I reviewed the former and latter), they were interesting and somewhat compelling character pieces focusing on a somewhat mysterious wandering mariachi who had a guitar case full of guns and squared off against local drug kingpins.  The third in the Mariachi trilogy, however, is a different story (har!) altogether.

Before I get to the meat of the review, though, take a moment to read the IMDB plot summaries of each.

El Mariachi: A traveling mariachi is mistaken for a murderous criminal and must hide from a gang bent on killing him.

Sounds interesting enough, right?  Simple, effective, and to the point.

Desperado: A gunslinger is embroiled in a war with a local drug runner.

Again, this seems like a decent storyline with room for some good conflicts.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico: Hitman “El Mariachi” becomes involved in international espionage involving a psychotic CIA agent and a corrupt Mexican general.

Wait a second…hitman? International espionage?  psychotic CIA agents and corrupt military officials?  If brevity is the soul of wit, this movie has its work cut out for it.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico: Antonio Banderas

Antonio Banderas reprises his role as El Mariachi once again. He's ready to bust some heads, but not even he knows why.

I have no problem with thinking big.  In fact, some of my favorite movies are epic in scale.  But big just for the sake of big is usually a recipe for failure.  Unfortunately, like George Lucas cluttering up Star Wars with all sorts of meaningless characters and contrived conflicts in Episode I, Robert Rodriguez took a perfectly good character and transformed his (presumably) final chapter into a mess of politics and poorly-executed government intrigue.  The result is a movie that wanders from character to character, in which the Mariachi himself is almost an afterthought.  Meanwhile, the storyline is so convoluted that it becomes a chore to try and keep up with it all.  “Mexico” is a film that strives for too many things and ultimately succeeds at almost none of them.

With the two previous films there was no doubt about who the central character was: the Mariachi.  In the third film we have a handful of characters to follow:  Agent Sands (Johnny Depp, giving it his level best), the aforementioned “psychotic CIA agent;” Billy (Mickey Rourke), a convicted felon who is trying to right past wrongs; Ajedrez (Eva Mendez), a double-crossing government agent, Barillo (Willem DaFoe), the drug kingpin who is trying to stage a coup and take over the government…and oh yeah, El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas doing an excellent job considering what he has to work with), the mysterious guitar-playing gunslinger who doesn’t actually have much to do with anything.  In fact, it’s as if Rodriguez, who reprised his role as writer and director, constructed a plot about drug kingpins, double agents, government takeovers, and international espionage and then realized he had to find a way to fit his Mariachi character into it somehow.

Mickey Rourke, Willem Dafoe

Mickey Rourke and Willem Dafoe, tackling issues and taking names.

Even the shootouts and gunfights–Rodriguez’ bread and butter, and a hallmark of the Mariachi films–are kind of a mess.  One that takes place inside a cathedral, with the Mariachi defending himself against a small horde of nameless Bad Guys, is stylistically impressive but emotionally empty.  The same can be said for another gunfight in the middle of a crowded street later in the movie, as if Rodriguez knew he had to throw in some violence even though it doesn’t serve much of a purpose for the overall story.  But perhaps the worst transgression of this movie is its treatment of what little there is of the Mariachi character.  The Mariachi from the first two films plays by his own rules, and does what needs to be done.  The Mariachi in Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a government agent who is ostensibly going after the killers of his wife and daughter, but is mostly content to do what he is told by shady operatives.  Worse yet, Rodriguez turns the Mariachi into a parody of himself:  at one point Antonio Banderas literally rides his guitar case like a surfboard down a flight of stairs.  Worse yet, near the end of the film one of the men in his mariachi band pulls out a remote control and literally drives his guitar-case-on-wheels through the streets and underneath a truck, at which point it explodes and kills all the men inside.  I understand Rodriguez’ tongue-in-cheek style, but this is cinematic buffoonery.

There are a few redeeming qualities to be found here, despite the movie’s myriad flaws.  Agent Sands is one of the more interesting characters I have seen onscreen in quite a while, and the plot does have its share of compelling intrigue and backstabbing.  It’s just not very well put together, and doesn’t make for a fitting entry into the Mariachi franchise.


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DesperadoAfter cutting his cinematic teeth with the low-budget film El Mariachi, director Robert Rodriguez gained some clout and influence to complete the next chapter in his series about the mysterious Mariachi–the musician with a mysterious past who exacts vengeance with weapons stored in a guitar case.  For the follow-up story he was able to hire some A-level acting talent including Steve Buscemi, Quentin Tarantino, and even Cheech Marin, while also introducing American audiences to famous latin actors like Joaquim de Almeida, Salma Hayek, and yes, Antonio Banderas (who has hardly done any Spanish films since).  Along with the higher caliber of acting, Desperado boasts other improvements like insane gunfights, big explosions, and, in some parts, some exceptional cinematography.  But is it a better film than El Mariachi?  That’s a tough one to answer.

El Mariachi introduced us to the guitar player who lost everything, including the woman he loved, at the hands of a brutal Mexican druglord.  It was a gripping tale, if poorly acted and haphazardly edited.  Desperado is simply a tale of revenge, with the Mariachi out for blood for pretty much the duration of the film.  Having already hit rock bottom, he is now out to get the people who shot his would-be girlfriend at the end of the last movie.  But to tell the story this time around, Rodriguez uses some tricks from the first movie including a case of mistaken identity, a very similar love story, and a video game-like body count on the way to the final showdown with the drug lord at the end of the movie.  While Banderas does an exceptional job at playing the vengeful but vulnerable Mariachi, his character doesn’t show the depth of his counterpart from the first movie.  He is conflicted about his mission to kill, but with so many repeated elements from the first movie, his character doesn’t have the same weight as the original.

Desperado Antonio Banderas

The Mariachi...a Mexican Dirty Harry?

Even though the production values are ramped up significantly in Desperado, I think it’s also one of the films downfalls too.  Rodriguez stages an intensely frantic gunfight near the beginning of the movie, but the violence is so over-the-top that it almost turns into a cartoon.  The Mariachi, having attended the Jack Bauer School of Bullet Dodging (i.e. just standing there), in well-nigh invulnerable while being shot at with all manner of weaponry from dozens of bar patrons.  Not only does he escape without a scratch, he at one point shoots his handguns while flicking his wrists at right angles.  It’s stylish, I guess, but comes across as silly more than anything.  The same goes for other action scenes in this movie:  stylish but cliché or devoid of much substance.  There’s even a wow-I-didn’t-see-that-coming scene where the Mariachi and his new squeeze Carolina (Salma Hayek) walk away from an explosion.  In fact, the entire ending shootout becomes so ridiculous that it actually undermines any semblance of seriousness that Rodriguez might have created throughout the rest of the film.  The Mariachis friends show up to help him battle another legion of henchmen, only these guys have guitar cases with fully automatic rifles and rocket launchers inside (and to reload? Just give the case a quick jolt upwards by the handle!).

In many ways, Desperado is kind of like the Special Editions of Star Wars:  the originals were fine without all the excess CGI glommed on, and here it’s as if Rodriguez is so eager to show off his new bag of cinematic tricks that he forgets to craft a truly compelling story-driven narrative.  It’s not that the movie isn’t a good action movie, it’s just that’s kind of all it is:  just another action movie.


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El Mariachi

I haven’t seen many films directed by Robert Rodriguez, which may come as a bit of a surprise to some who know my penchant for action and adventure films.  Nevertheless, for whatever reason, I’m just not very familiar with Rodriguez, despite his prominence as a filmmaker.  I know he directed Desperado, a prominent action movie that launched the American career of Antonio Banderas.  I also know he and erstwhile pal Quentin Tarantino have collaborated on a few projects.  And I saw From Dusk till Dawn about 15 years ago, if that counts for anything.  And so it was from this framework that I figured I’d give some of his movies a shot and see what happens.

To start things off I watched El Mariachi, the first full-length movie Robert Rodriguez directed.  In fact, he wrote, directed, edited, and did much of the crew work himself because the meager budget of $7,000 (financed chiefly through Rodriguez’ participation in a medical study) just didn’t allow for much else.  And while El Mariachi is far from great, it’s a good example of professio ex adversum:  art from adversity.  What Rodriguez lacked in anything resembling production value, he made up for with a captivating central character, an interesting story, and a fast-paced directing style that keeps things interesting and engaging for much of the picture.

The film tells the story of a young Mexican guitar player (Carlos Gallardo) who has set out on his own to find fame and fortune as a mariachi.  He ends up in a sleepy town where the locals mistake him for a killer who dresses in black and carries a guitar case full of weapons.  Realizing that people are after him, the Mariachi decides that hiding out isn’t much of an option, so he finds ways to fight back, sometimes with bloody results.  He also befriends a local woman named Domino who works as a bartender and also has some interesting ties to a drug lord who is connected to the real killer.  It’s an interesting story with a few twists along the way and a surprising ending to boot, and all in all a pretty solid canvas for Rodriguez to paint some compelling action scenes and build a few interesting characters along the way.

The damsel in distress: He's going to scare her with what is clearly a 25-cent cap gun.

While it might be easy to dismiss El Mariachi as a bit too cheesy, a bit too low-budget, and certainly lacking in grandiose Hollywood-style explosions and slow-motion gunslinging scenes, I admire Rodriguez for putting together a fast-paced action film despite the odds against him.  The efficiency with which he tells the story is striking:  we know very little about the Mariachi (who, incidentally, has no name in the movie) but his story is compelling nonetheless.  He and Domino have a relationship that is believable, if far from actually being romantic.  And the action scenes with shootouts in bars and the city streets are surprisingly effective thanks to Rodriguez’ solid cutting and editing even though the weapons and blood squibs are so obviously fake.

And so on its own the film is just average, while at times borderline cheesy.  But as a film that was crafted with passion and dedication despite all odds against the director, it’s practically astounding.  I’m anxious to see Desperado now, the follow-up film that made Rodriguez a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood.


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