Once Upon A Time In Mexico review by The Grim Ringler

I have loved director Robert Rodriguez ever since I saw El Mariachi, the first film in what has become the Mariachi trilogy. I loved his sense of adventure with the camera, his sense of style with the action, and his pure love for movies and for making movies. This was a guy that, like Quentin Tarantino, loves watching movies as much as he loves making them. His career has been peppered with films that were more successful than others (Desperado is a masterpiece while Faculty is pop horror cheese, but in a good way, well, to me anyway), but every one of his films has had a sense of self and was made with love. Rodriguez has had success the past three years with his very modestly budgeted kids’ spy series Spy Kids and has shown he has enough talent to be able to take on any film project that’s put in front of him, and to do it all within a budget. And finally he has been able to finish off his Mariachi trilogy in grand style and to finally have a clean slate and no unfinished film worlds he is obligated to visit. But, well, if only the movie were as good as the first two in the series.

Once Upon A Time In Mexico finds El, played wonderfully again by Antonio Banderas, happily unknown and making guitars in a small town far from the world of violence that has long shadowed him. He is a man haunted by the ghosts of his past, and hiding from his future. He is found though by a man that wants him to play a part in the murder of the president of Mexico so that a puppet government can take control. El, still a gun for hire, goes with his armed entourage to see what the job is and to keep the townspeople from further bloodshed (one man is shot while trying to protect El). Hearing the proposition (presented by the chameleon-like Johnny Depp, who really does steal another film, darn him!), El accepts, though only because it will present him his chance to settle the score with the man that has taken away the people he loves and even took El’s own life, or almost did. Meanwhile the other involved parties begin their own preparations to get rid of the president, a man that wants to create a stronger Mexico where people really are free of tyranny, and that’s not good for crime lords like Willem DeFoe’s character Barillo(who is made up to look JUST like Charelton Heston from Touch of Evil) who want to rule Mexico and its people. Add to all of this chaos an ex-FBI agent that wants to avenge the death of a partner, a bad-guy that wants out of his contract with gangster Barillo, the daughter of Barillo, and good grief, a cast of, umm, several. The plot to kill the president comes together on the Mexican Day of the Dead and El, with the help of two mariachi/assassin cohorts, must choose between revenge and patriotism, and must finally choose Mexico and its people, or himself. Will they save the president or kill him to finish their job and let happen what happens?

I would love to say that I am just a lazy bastard and that’s the best I could come up with, plot-wise, but honest, that’s it. There is a lot of backstabbing and double-dealing and that’s fun, but it’s also predictable. And while I liked the movie overall, I left the theater very disappointed as it just didn’t feel as if it was a movie as much as one long lead up to a final battle. Everything feels rushed. There’s moments when I just wanted to yell slow down ya darn whipper snappers! Because darn it, there are some great performances here. Johnny Depp is tremendous as the CIA agent playing both sides against the middle. Much like his performance in this summer’s Pirates of the Caribbean, he is obviously having a lot of fun with this character and has been given a very long leash. Banderas too is very good as the action not words El, playing the character with a sense of suppressed rage and loss and always seeming on the verge of flying into a rage. Ruben Blades is also very good as the vengeful ex-FBI agent out to avenge the death of his partner. But, as I have read in other reviews, there really is so much plot that it feels like there isn’t one. Make sense? No. Each character has so much untold or half-mentioned back-story and so much about them is unsaid that when the film starts barreling for the final confrontations its hard to really know who to root for to live or die. Prime example being Depp’s character who you only really know to root for or against after a run in with Barillo near the end.

The film was shot on digital video and does look really good. I didn’t much care for much of the editing as it felt too choppy and too much like the modern Michael Bay action movies where the camera is placed as close to the action as possible. The action scenes were very well done and showed some great imagination, especially considering that by this point action sequences are all beginning to look alike. I was a bit confused as to how this film connected directly the first two – Salma Hayek’s character is sorta with El, but sorta not we find out. I suppose that these really are his versions of the Sergio Leone westerns where it has essentially the same main character in it but each story plays as a stand alone as if each is another folk tale about a legendary hero and no one quite gets the facts right. The film is full of some very nice touches, some great performances, some fun writing, and it is very hard to dislike a film in which everyone seems to be having a good time, but it’s also hard to love a film so disjointed. Like a folk tale there are a lot of leaps in story and logic and at times, like I said before, you just want the action to slow down so you can get a handle on all the weird back stories and backstabbing. If nothing else though, the movie is one that fans should see because of what happens to Depp’s character. That’s all I will say. His story arc is the best in the film and really is the main reason to see Once Upon A Time…

Once… is not a bad film at all. Rodriguez made a very fun, very action packed film that will please a lot of fans. And heck, it ain’t a bad way to end the trilogy. But I can’t shake the feeling that it would been better, felt more important, more like a last film in a trilogy had he taken some time away from directing (the guy has been at it non-stop for a few years now) and had let this film develop when it was ready. Alas, that didn’t happen and instead we are left with an oft-times confusing crash-up-derby with some brilliant spots and a lot of zits on its butt. Worth seeing but not the series capper I had hoped for. Oh, and if you see it, I read that you’ll want to stay after the credits for something. Fair warning.


7 out of 10 Jackasses
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