NOW PLAYING: Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Posted: Monday, September 15, 2003

It's been said that success is the worst thing that can happen to some people. And, while I wish director Robert Rodriguez all the success in the world, he just may personally discover the truth of that statement. His first film, El Mariachi, a low-budget shoot-em-up, was hailed as a triumph of independent cinema. His follow-up, the slightly higher budgeted Desperado, was not as well received, but retains a loyal following. The last of this trilogy, however, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, shows the disturbing signs of director with too much money and too much freedom, but not enough in the way of ideas.

For those new to the series, the three films chronicle a poor wandering mariachi (guitar player) who, in the first film, ambles into a dusty little town and, in a very short space of time loses his true love and acquires a guitar case full of guns, and a taste for vengeance. Desperado picks up with our hero just as he is about to kill the last of the drug dealers responsible for all of the tragedy of El Mariachi. At the end of Desperado, after all the bad guys have been dispatched, you feel as though maybe the mariachi can lay down his guns now that his work is through. But no, there are always more drug dealers, as evidenced by Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which finds our hero, long after the end of the first film, living a quiet life in a town of guitar makers. He has lost a wife and daughter this time, but no longer does he seek vengeance. It comes seeking him, however, in the form of Johnny Depp, a corrupt CIA agent who wants to use the mariachi as an assassin, instructing him to kill an evil general who plans a coup wherein the current president of Mexico will be murdered. (Of course, this evil general is the very same that murdered his wife and daughter years before.)

This last film in the trilogy is appropriately titled, considering that the whole set is really a series of modern day Mexican fairy tales. There is very little basis in reality, and you don't really expect any. I mean, a guitar case full of guns? Who could even lift it? Wandering mariachis (yes, there are more than one) who fight crime? Pure storybook stuff. The problem with Mexico is that fairy tale is amped too high. The story is so complicated that you need a score card to keep track of who's who, who's with who, and who was killed by who, and when. The main characters include a drug dealer, a killer mariachi, a retired FBI agent, a corrupt Mexican officer, a rogue general, and a shady CIA agent, all of who are on each other's sides at one time or another. And that doesn't even come close to including the whole gallery of supporting characters to keep track of. Now, if the story made sense, if it all came together to form a coherent plot, that would be one thing. But it doesn't, and by the end your neck is sore from turning to your date to ask what's going on.

One thing Robert Rodriguez (who you also know from the Spy Kids movies, and From Dusk 'til Dawn) is very skilled at is characterization. Antonio Banderas' Mariachi is a very well developed personality, and a fascinating one as well. It's unfortunate that he is given relatively short shrift in this film, as he is a very talented, yet underrated actor. Most interesting of all, however, is Depp's CIA agent, Sands. With apparently little or no motive, Sands succeeds in stirring everyone up. "I bring balance," he tells the mariachi at one point, and yet all his machinations lead, ultimately, to chaos. His character can be equated to Loki of Norse legends, or to the coyote of Native American myth. He is the instigator, the one who stirs the pot, so to speak, and, in the end, this film hands down pretty severe consequences. Depp, who is coming off of recent success with Pirates of the Caribbean, is really the best part of the film and, though I didn't particularly like his character, is the most fun to watch.

Equally as problematic as the convoluted plot is the overuse of special effects. Empty eye sockets, exploding knee caps, and explosions galore don't add up to a successful movie. Again, these movies are fantasy, unsubtle fantasy at that, but that doesn't mean that they have to be cartoony. I feel like Rodriguez was having a lot of fun on the set, but some of it needs to transfer to the audience.

Rodriguez is a small time director who has made it big, and now he is trying everything he ever wanted to try, but couldn't afford on his own. However, the adage that less is more is very true, and certainly applicable here. People liked El Mariachi without all the bells and whistles. A larger budget should simply make the production smoother, not necessarily splashier. El Mariachi and Desperado may have been right on target, but Mexico is shooting blanks. Grade: C

Once Upon a Time in Mexico is rated R for violence and language.

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