Published Sep 01, 2003It should come as little surprise that Johnny Depp (Jump Street represent!) absolutely steals every scene he has in Once Upon A Time In Mexico. However, what is surprising is that his larceny is so grand and so complete that the movie sinks to a moribund level whenever Depp saunters off screen, which is only one of Once's problems.
Back from directing his Spy Kids series, which has been in decline since its first offering, director/editor/cameraman/musician/jack of all trades Robert Rodriguez has now returned to finish off his El Mariachi trilogy, but much like Spy Kids 3D, the results fail to live up to his past work, which was far from perfect to begin with.
Heavily influenced by Sergio Leone westerns (hell, it not so subtly lifts its name from one) and balletic Japanese gunplay (Hardboiled, The Killer, etc.), Once Upon A Time tells a tale of revenge (El Mariachi's, played more sombrely here but not as stylishly by Banderas) set against a backdrop of civil unrest, with the prerequisite drug lord and a coup dé·tat in Mexico, obviously.
It breaks down like so, El (Banderas) has retired from his life of kill-crazy rampages and now broods and plays guitar after his wife (Salma Hayek) and daughter are killed by a Mexican general named Marquez. Depp, playing the psychotic but charismatic CIA agent Sands, is "nudging" the future of Mexico and wants El to come out of retirement and kill Marquez during a drug lord-engineered coup. Of course, it gets pretty convoluted with blood money, betrayals and flashback scenes that don't jive with Desperado (when did Hayek date Marquez?), but we're generally watching for action, not plot nuances. Which is also where Once fails.
In terms of its action, Once has more than any other Rodriguez endeavour, featuring bigger battles, expansive gunfights and huge explosions but the gunplay isn't as artistic, or as brutal as Desperado, or his best work, the first half of From Dusk Till Dawn hey, he made Clooney an action star. In a case of bigger isn't always better, his best scenes are recycled from previous fare Desperado's opening bar scene shootout is resurrected here and the swinging in front of a truck scene from El Mariachi is also reused and revamped. Sure they've been pumped up and have never looked better technically but it's just more of the same and not as clever as the first time around.
Another problem is that it seems all the best lines and mannerisms were given to Depp's rogue agent at the expense of Bandera's El (check out Depp's "killing the chef" diatribe), and El is now just a brooding, unstoppable killing machine with little to connect with and few of the endearing qualities (i.e., humour) he possessed in Desperado. In fact, he's not even in Once that much, which makes it difficult to care about his character, although Depp makes it easy to care about his.
Also staying true to the recycling philosophy, Rodriguez resurrects the Mariachis from Desperado to assist El with his revenge (one's even played by Enrique Iglesias), but Rodriguez has always had the peculiar habit of creating interesting characters and killing them before they connect, or even get used. And here, Willem Dafoe, as the drug lord Barillo, is utterly wasted, while Hayek only appears in flashback scenes.
But what Rodriguez always does well, besides incorporating music and the country itself as an ethereal character, is get "hero shots" giant close-ups with guns pointed squarely at the camera and utilise western clichés, such as the shootout, offering an interesting twist on them Depp's "blind" gunfights at the end of the movie.
While Desperado wasn't great, merely being good but with issues, Once fails to equal its predecessor, which is a shame, because you want it to be amazing and it's not, just like Desperado wasn't. Sadly, it's time for Rodriguez to let his franchises ride off into the sunset, which he seems to have also realised, and blaze a new trail. (Columbia/Sony)