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Once Upon a Time in Mexico Review

By Shawn McKenzie 09/13/2003

The director of some of the coolest action flicks of the ‘90s, Robert Rodriguez, has finally released the last chapter of the story of his gun slinging mariachi player carrying a guitar cased filled with guns.  It all started in 1992 with his first film, El Mariachi and continued in 1995 with DesperadoOnce Upon a Time in Mexico is the long-awaited finale, and like the first two, it looks very cool.  Unfortunately, trying to figure out what is going on in the movie might be a problem.


Agent Sands (Johnny Depp) is a corrupt covert CIA agent stationed in Mexico who doesn’t want the drug lord Barillo (Willem Dafoe) to overthrow the President (Pedro Armendariz) following a military coup led by General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil.)  He has his local tough guy connection Cucuy (Danny Trejo) bring him El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), a mostly silent and nameless figure whose legend as a killer is sometimes a little too outrageous to believe.  Sands needs someone to assassinate Marquez, and he chooses El because of the stories and information on him retrieved by Belini (Cheech Marin), a bar owner who knows all the legends.  According to Belini, El and his wife, Carolina (Salma Hayek), had a bad run in with Marquez in the past, which resulted in her and their daughter’s death.  El now wants to get his revenge, and Sands’ proposal might be just the opportunity.  With El taking care of Marquez, Sands has a Mexican AFN agent Ajedrez (Eva Mendes) try to talk a retired FBI agent named Jorge Ramirez (Rubén Blades) into getting his revenge on Barillo for torturing the agent’s former partner in the past.  The way he will get to Barillo is through the drug lord’s right-hand man, Billy Chambers (Mickey Rourke), a criminal fugitive from America who wants to go home again.  El enlists his friends, fellow gun-toting guitar players Lorenzo (Enrique Iglesias) and Fideo (Marco Leonardi), to enact his revenge against Marquez.  While doing so, El comes to see that El Presidente isn’t so bad, and revenge starts to coincide with protection.


The look of this film is very cool.  In addition to some highly stylized and well-choreographed gun battles, there is a scene involving Banderas and Hayek where they have to escape a building while chained together.


Also, the little quirks about the film make it somewhat fun to watch.  Depp’s Sands is a villain you love to hate, because he does it like no other.  The character has a false arm because his real arm is holding a gun under the table.  Even when the character is blinded later in the film, he keeps up his spirits and sense of humor with the help of a young boy (Tony Valdes) guiding him through the streets.  Sands and this boy don’t react to things the way you would think they should.  Instead of writhing in pain, Sands is prepping for another shootout, and the boy doesn’t flee in terror from all of the violence.  Other little things were eccentric.  Rourke’s character carries around a little Chihuahua that he has to hide from Barillo every time he sees him (the reason of which is never explained.)  El Mariachi and his posse have some cool new guitar weapons.  In one flashback, we see El shooting an electric guitar like a machine gun, and in another, we see Lorenzo use his guitar like a radio-controlled car and blow something up.  Rodriguez has no desire to make anything realistic in the slightest, and that is part of the fun of his films.


Regrettably, the plot is so complicated and there are so many characters that it heavily distracts the moviegoer.  Not that the first two movies had the easiest stories to follow, but at least there were only a small amount of characters, so we could understand what was going on.  It was basically one man against the bad guys (okay…he had his gal by his side and his posse in the second flick, but I think you understand my meaning.)  In this one, El Mariachi is practically a supporting character.  There was long stretches when I was wondering where Antonio had gone.  On the flipside, Hayek is barely in the film (she is only seen in flashbacks), so I wonder why she gets second billing.

This is not Rodriguez’s best year creatively.  Is he just not able to construct a third installment of films effectively?  Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over was a disappointment compared to its predecessors, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico is also not as good as the first two.  I think perhaps he might want to stop at two the next time he helms a franchise.  He owns the rights to the comic book Madman that he plans to turn into a movie next year.  I hope he stops at two movies there…but what a cool two movies they will be!


Get the soundtrack with a score composed by Robert Rodriguez himself and containing songs by Brian Setzer, Juno Reactor, and various other artists:

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...and the second:

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