Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Review by Sombrero Grande

Once upon a time in Mexico, there was a movie called El Mariachi, shot on a shoestring budget for the direct-to-Spanish-video market. The movie was so good that the unthinkable happened: the sequel was filmed and released by a major Hollywood studio. Wow. It almost sounds like a fairy tale or a budding film student’s wet dream, but it happened. Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the last installment in Robert Rodriguez’s “El Mariachi” trilogy is a film that relies on that same sense of the remarkable. It’s a fantasy, almost a fairy tale—hence the storybook sounding title. People being shot by pistols only to fly across the room as if they had just caught a ride on a cannonball is a solid clue that the audience is not to take everything they see on the screen seriously, but just to enjoy the ride. “The ride” is stylish and, at times, quite fun, but sadly it’s all there is in Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

I’ve seen El Mariachi—heck, I own it—and it is an amazing film, the kind that allows the viewer to become so engrossed in the characters and action that he/she can completely forget about the facts that not only is the film super-low budget but also a subtitled foreign film. I was completely sucked into the story of “El Mariachi”, a simple musician who wants nothing more than to earn a living playing his guitar until fate intervenes. There’s another man in town with a large, black guitar case, only his is full of guns. When El Mariachi is mistaken for the wanted man, he’s led down a path that will rob him of his dreams and change him completely. It’s exactly this kind of personal story that’s sorely missing from Once Upon a Time in Mexico. El Mariachi's sequel, Desperado, was all about El Mariachi’s quest for revenge. With his love killed and his hand mangled to the point where he can no longer play his guitar, this broken shell of a man assumes the role of the killer he was mistaken for as he guns his way to the man responsible.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico gets quite a bit more complicated and for no good. A drug lord is planning to kill the new president of Mexico. A shady CIA agent wants El Mariachi to kill the general whom the drug lord is paying to kill the president, but not until AFTER the president is killed. An ass-load of other characters get involved to the point where there becomes so many betrayals and switching of “sides” going on that it makes Mission: Impossible look like Mission: Impossible II. Now, normally I enjoy stories with a lot of characters whose lives all intertwine, but Once Upon a Time in Mexico never really bothers to give any of its characters much development, not even El Mariachi! Most disappointing of all is that fact that El Mariachi isn’t even the most interesting character in this story! That distinction goes to Agent Sands (played by the outstanding Johnny Depp) as a rogue playing by his own rules, attempting to “rig the game” in his favor, only to have the tables turned on him. This doesn’t feel much like an “El Mariachi” movie to me, instead it feels like a Mission: Impossible kind of story with El Mariachi just dropped in as one of the characters. Toss in the fact that the general El Mariachi is asked to kill is, in fact, the man who killed his OTHER love (this time, to up the ante, it’s not just his girlfriend but his wife and child) and you’ve basically got a miniature version of Desperado’s plot shoehorned into the already complicated story just to give El Mariachi enough of a reason to be in the story at all.

I didn’t dislike Once Upon a Time in Mexico--it's ultimately just "okay." The film had some marvelous visuals and intriguingly simple special effects--Rodriguez is the only director who can make spurting blood not only tolerable to me but often artistically appealing--but Once Upon a Time in Mexico was never able to come close to pulling me in the way El Mariachi or even Desperado did.

Orson Welles complained that his best film was his first film, Citizen Kane, and that he wished it could have been his last film since he spent his whole life unable to equal it. I certainly hope the same will not be true for Robert Rodriguez and El Mariachi, though it’s currently not looking promising with Once Upon a Time in Mexico and the cruddy things I’ve been hearing about Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over. Perhaps it’s the fantasy of all his recent Spy Kids films that is diluting his ability to tell a mesmerizing character-centered story. Rodriguez’s work still has the refreshing style and inventiveness of El Mariachi, but all style and little substance does not make for a mesmerizing film.


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