Antonio Banderas, Johnny Depp, and Salma Hayek in Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)


(director/writer/cinematographer/editor/music: Robert Rodriguez; cast: Antonio Banderas ( El Mariachi), Salma Hayek (Carolina), Johnny Depp (Sands), Mickey Rourke (Billy Chambers), Pedro Armendariz (El Presidente), Eva Mendes (Ajedrez), Willem Dafoe (Barillo), Enrique Iglesias) (Lorenzo), Marco Leonardi (Fideo), Rubén Blades (Jorge, FBI), Cheech Marin (Belini), Danny Trejo (Cucuy), Gerardo Vigil (General Marquez), José Luis Avendaño (Alvaro); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Elizabeth Avellan/Carlos Gallardo/Robert Rodriguez; Sony Pictures Entertainment/Columbia Pictures; 2003)
“A mindless and tedious orgy of violence.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A mindless and tedious orgy of violence. “Mexico” offers things from many a bad B-movie, from Hong Kong action to spaghetti westerns. Robert Rodriguez’s disposable adult fairy tale fantasy is an action-packed feast solely for the eyes (even a blind person should be able to see what’s going down), relying on snazzy editing and special effects and bizarre characters to cover up its ridiculous story. There’s plenty of star power in the attractive leads, gunplay, superheroes, baddies, guitars, sombreros, a Chihuahua, and comic portrayals. It might please an audience that can’t get enough gore in their summer films and are breathing hard at all the carnage and dazzle “Once Upon A Time in Mexico” revels in, as they can readily accept that it doesn’t matter that the film makes absolutely no sense. This is the third in Rodriguez’s Mariachi trilogy, which began in its box office hit sleeper indie El Mariachi (made for a mere $7,000) and continued in Desperado (which was made for $3 million). “Once Upon A Time in Mexico” (has been made for $30 million) comes after the Mexican director went to the respectable family type of film for the last three years, filming his Spy Kid flicks.

This noisy, unreal mythic western, playing with the revenge theme of lamenting the loss of loved ones and getting even by shooting anything that breathes, makes the stoic El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), just called El by those in the know, into a guitar-slinging hero and savior of Mexico. The handsome gunslinger, with the beautifully draped long black hair, has dropped out of circulation and retreated to his poor local village of guitar makers, after his hot-blooded sexy knife-throwing wife Carolina (Salma Hayek) and his daughter were killed by the evil staring starchy General Marquez. Carolina lives through El’s memories, as we see throughout in flashback.

The story has a backdrop of Mexico as a corrupt country in the hands of the drug cartel and is ripe for revolution, as its obese, witless president is surrounded by double-crossers. Johnny Depp plays a crooked CIA operative named Sands, who doesn’t act as much as he does campy comic sketches throughout as if he were still that pirate character in his most recent Caribbean pic. Sands, the master of disguises, sporting a fake arm, wearing a variety of slogan orientated T-shirts including one that says CIA-Cleavage Inspection Agency, recruits El to join him in killing the assassin who plans to kill the president of Mexico. He finds El by bribing a chatty bartender (Cheech Marin) with $10,000 that he pays him in a lunchbox. Though El has been kidnapped by Sands’ henchmen, led by the mean looking pocked-face hombre named Cucuy, he goes along with Sands’ idea of killing the assassin because it’s his longtime enemy Marquez. The general has been hired by the drug cartel run by Barillo (Dafoe) to eliminate El Presidente because he can’t be bribed and is cracking down on the drug cartel. Sands plans to let the assassination take place and then have El knock off Marquez and steal the millions Barillo is paying for the job.

Into this mix El brings his two loyal gunmen Fideo and Lorenzo, who are disguised with El as a mariachi-playing trio. An ex-FBI operative (Blades) is talked into illegally becoming active again as he teams up with Sands to go after Barillo and get revenge for the torture and killing of his partner. The agent while tailing his man spots fugitive Billy Chambers (Rourke) from the States, someone he’s also interested in catching but who has eluded him for the last eight years. Billy works as a goon for Barillo, but is not above betraying anyone and makes a bargain to help the fed agent. There’s also Sands’ untrustworthy girlfriend, Ajedrez (Eva Mendes), who is a Mexican Federale and is as equally contemptible as her boyfriend.

Rodriguez’s digital video film looks good and is in constant motion, but the problem I had is that it didn’t mean a thing to me. I guess I’d like at least some structure to the story and not a film that relies entirely on gimmicks and frenetic energy and technical accomplishments to get over. Since Rodriguez never could put together a story that even had one reasonable idea, he lazily concludes by going over-the-top with a series of gratuitous violent scenes. This is not my idea of good filmmaking.