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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