Friday, July 8, 2011

Once Upon a Time in Mexico Movie Review

The third film in Robert Rodríguez’s “Mariachi” trilogy takes its title, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, as an homage to Sergio Leone. The title reputedly suggested by friend Quentin Tarantino, who told him that this was his “Dollars” trilogy (in reference to Leone’s three spaghetti westerns featuring Clint Eastwood, the third of which is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and in which Once Upon a Time in the West plays no part). None of that matters, though, because Rodríguez and Tarantino love to riff on the culture of coolness. They love being in the know and they love to throw little tidbits in for their fans who are also ‘in the know’.


I’m not sure exactly what Once Upon a Time in Mexico is ‘in the know’ about. It’s a film that feels like it’s parroting other films from a bygone era, but nothing that lands on my radar. It’s completely over-the-top dramatic overkill. Sure, Leone’s spaghetti westerns were dramatic, occasionally absurd to the point of surrealism. But Rodríguez’s third installment is so packed full of plot, characters and action, it would be a wonder if anyone could walk away from a first viewing with a reasonable understanding of what happened.

To start with there’s El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas reprising his Desperado role), now occasionally referred to simply as ‘El’ – as in ‘the’ (little joke in the film). But El is hardly the centerpiece hero he was in the last film. Now he has to share screen time with the film’s antihero CIA agent Sands (Johnny Depp). The plot, which is altogether too much to get into detail, involves Sands hiring El to assassinate El Presidente in a convoluted attempt to restore the balance of power at the same time there is to be an attempted coup d’état organized by General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil). Wouldn’t you know it? There’s a revenge subplot worked in as El has an old score to settle with Marquez. The overwritten plot also has room for Willem Defoe as Mexican drug cartel Barrillo, Eva Mendes as a Federal drug agent, Mickey Rourke as Barrillo’s muscle, Rubén Blades as a retired FBI agent living in Mexico, Enrique Iglesias as one of El’s musician friends, Danny Trejo playing a different role to the one he had in Desperado, and an all too brief appearance by Salma Hayek as Carolina again.

The story and execution are not as tight and compact as the first two films in the trilogy, but that’s sort of what Rodríguez is obviously going for. It’s clear this is meant to be somewhat incomprehensible, but the heart of the trilogy should be the Mariachi character. Here he gets lost in the shuffle, saddled with the heavy baggage of yet another tragic backstory. We spend most of his scenes longing to be back with Depp’s Agent Sands, whose sardonic wit adds a much-needed element to the film.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico might be most interesting from a technical standpoint. It’s the first film Rodríguez shot entirely using high definition digital cameras. The clarity of composition and color is truly astounding even by today’s standards. What I find occasionally distracting in the film is his reliance on digital effects rendered in post-production. Rodríguez is quite adept at making the best with limited resources and that’s part of the charm of the first two films, El mariachi in particular. To take away that choke hold may have freed him up to do a lot more in terms of special effects, but it leaves so little to the imagination.

I can still have a ball watching any of these three films, but seeing this final chapter reaffirmed my affinity for the middle film, which stands out as even more complete and more interesting in the face of Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

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