Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) / Action

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence and language
Running Time: 101 min.

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Ruben Blades, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Salma Hayek, Pedro Armerndariz Jr., Cheech Marin, Enrique Iglesias 
Director:  Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay: Robert Rodriguez

Review published August 28, 2003

Call this El Mariachi 3, Desperado 2, or Once Upon a Time in Mexico -- whatever the name, nothing is going to make this turd smell sweet.  The third and last entry in the Mariachi trilogy proves that bigger isn't always better.  Take El Mariachi, for instance.  A budget of about $7,000 and still manages to entertain.  It was even better than the higher budget sequel, Desperado, which if anything was more of a remake.  Sure, it had big name stars, a larger budget ($7 million), and actual recorded dialogue, but still wasn't better.  Now comes the most expensive film of the three by far ($30 million), adding a red-hot Johnny Depp (Chocolat, Sleepy Hollow) to the cast, and all the gunfire, explosions and carnage you could ever want in an action film.  What was once a simple but stylish story has now become a grotesque, bloated, convoluted parody of its own cannibalistic ideas.  Most sequels are needless, but this one actually succeeds in leaving such a sour aftertaste, it makes me almost wish writer-director Robert Rodriguez (The Faculty, Sin City) had never made the original El Mariachi to begin with.

I'm going to do my best to explain the plot, but please realize this is an arduous task, since it was so sloppy as to become intangible.  Basically, "El Mariachi" has been hired by some wacko CIA agent (Depp) to assassinate a crime lord who is out to assassinate the Mexican president in a coup d'etat.  In addition, there's an ex-FBI agent, who has had his own partner assassinated, and then a female cop on the case, and well, a chihuahua, and ...oh Hell, I give up!

Let me get the good stuff out of the way first, because I'm going to slam this film so hard you'll wonder why I actually don't give it one star.  Every once in a while, a breath of fresh air creeps into this cesspool of explosions and ugly images, and manages to evoke a hearty laugh.  Most of these scenes occur early -- well, actually they occur throughout the movie, but you'll probably laugh the most in the beginning, because you'll most likely have given up paying attention long before the film's end.  Rodriguez also still has a breathtaking virtuoso style, but that's about the only thing he really has going for him in this one.  With a good script and finer characterizations, he could be a great filmmaker.

Sadly, as flashy as Rodriguez may be, there is no internal compass in his brain that tells him which direction would be the best way to go in his story, so instead, he chooses to do all of them.  Some of them are explored in dreams, nightmares or half-drugged delusions.  Others happen seemingly on the spur of the moment, creating a crazy atmosphere that can only come from a production that shoots most of its scenes without a finished script, slap-dashed together only by an instinct to try to be as over-the-top as possible, for fear anyone will notice that many scenes and characters serve no real purpose. 

Much of the film is spent in drawn out slow-motion shots, nonsensical side stories which aren't part of the overall plot, or endless scenes of people getting shot and flying into the air or off of rooftops and buildings.  Nothing in the movie makes any sense...not the plot, not the dialogue, not the characters, and certainly not the laws of physics.  It could be amusing in a film that had drawn you into the story, but the gunfights and violence occur so often, and with so little vested interest, that they become nothing but mind-numbing excursions meant to pad an already bloated film to the maximum allowable capacity.

Forget the misleading billing.  Antonio Banderas (The 13th Warrior, The Mask of Zorro) is the star, but there is almost nothing for him to do, since Rodriguez shot his wad already in the previous two films with the Mariachi character.  He seems more interested in the psycho CIA guy, played by Johnny Depp.  I don't know why, but I seem to be living in a bizarro world where people actually find Depp to an actor of great charisma and machismo, but I have to tell you, his shtick wears off quite fast, particularly when you've seen him do the same thing (but better) in Pirates of the Caribbean.  Oh, what the hell.  He is involved in the only amusing scenes of the film, so it's easy for him to steal the show.  Lastly, why in the world is Salma Hayek (Frida, Wild Wild West) in this movie?  Any scenes involving her are merely an afterthought, and if she has more than three lines of dialogue, they must still be on the cutting room floor.  She gets second billing, but look up at the top of my page at the cast list for a more accurate representation of how important she is to this film.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico is an unequivocal mess.  It's so noisy and violent, it will likely only please the easily entertained of audiences.  If your idea of a good time at the movies is seeing nothing but senseless shootouts, ridiculous dialogue, and grandiose stylistics, perhaps that might mean you.  Anyone looking for better characterizations, an interesting story, or even a meaningful existence to this film will come away empty-handed (and empty-headed.)   Rodriguez calls this an homage to Sergio Leone?  I call it a spit in the face.  Watch the Dollars trilogy, and Once Upon a Time in the West, and learn what real bravura filmmaking is all about.

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo