Once Upon a Time in Mexico review by Mike Long

Once upon a time in my living room, I was contemplating the career of Robert Rodriguez. This multi-talented filmmaker has dazzled us with his creativity and ingenuity in the past, but his career has apparently reached a cross-roads. He has built a reputation for himself, built a home studio for himself, and reached a point where he can name for his own projects. But, in 2003, he released two films which were both the final chapters of trilogies, and were both disappointing when compared to their predecessors. Those films were Spy Kids 3-D, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which is now available on DVD.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico is the third and final (?) chapter in a trilogy which began with 1992's El Mariachi, in which a musician (played by Carlos Gallardo) is mistaken for an assassin and becomes involved in a drug war. The action continued in 1995 with Desperado, where the Mariachi (now played by Antonio Banderas) finds himself once again taking on a drug cartel, while defending his new love, Carolina (Salma Hayek). As Once Upon a Time in Mexico opens, El Mariachi has gone into retirement and living in a small village. He is contacted by violent thug named Cucuy (Danny Trejo) and told to meet with Sands (Johnny Depp), a peculiar FBI agent. Sands has learned that a rebel military leader named General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil) is going to attempt a coup against El Presidente (Pedro Armendariz). Sands wants "El" (as he is known) to stop Marquez. As Sands is A) threatening El's village and B) El has a score to settle against Marquez (which I won't reveal), he accepts the offer. However, Sands is also in league with a drug-dealer named Barillo (Willem Dafoe) and, in playing both sides, places El in great danger.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico is actually two movies at once, and because of that, is doubly disappointing. For starters, this is a sequel to El Mariachi and Desperado, but just barely. One would expect El to the be the main character in the film, but he really isn't. The Sands character actually dominates the movie. Yes, El is in the film quite a bit, but his story is pushed to the background. On the audio commentary, Rodriguez claims that Once Upon a Time in Mexico is actually "Part 4 of the series", and that El's flashbacks in the film are from a "Part 3 movie" that wasn't made. How's that for confusing? The movie may continue the story of El (somewhat), but Once Upon a Time in Mexico doesn't gel with the first two films, and El's flashbacks feel very tacked on, as do all of the action scenes in the film. The first two movies in the series became famous due to their over-the-top action sequences. But the shootouts here don't feel the least bit organic, and it's almost as if Rodriguez thought, "Uh oh, things have gotten slow, I'd better put in an action scene here."

So, does that mean that Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a crappy movie. Not necessarily. Once one adjusts to the idea that Sands is the main character and not El, the film is entertaining. Johnny Depp does a wonderful job as Sands, a man who is seemingly free of any morals whatsoever. That aspect, as with Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, allows Depp to play the character in a very loose and unpredictable manner. But, Sands lack of affiliation makes Once Upon a Time in Mexico a very confusing movie. There are way too many characters and at times, it's impossible to keep track of who's double-crossing whom. Also, Sands odd, comedic manner doesn't gel with the dark, depressing tale of El. Rodriguez proves that he is still a very competent director, as the film is beautifully shot and the action scenes look great, but the story is a muddled mess, and makes for a film that isn't quite satisfying on its own, and certainly doesn't work as the final chapter in the El Mariachi trilogy.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico shoots its way onto DVD courtesy of Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 (although, it is my understanding that it was projected theatrically at 2.35:1) and the transfer has been enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. This was the first film which Rodriguez shot digitally and the transfer looks fantastic. The images shows no signs of grain or defects and is very clear. The clarity of the picture gives it a great deal of depth, and it looks fantastic on a high-definition monitor. The colors are true and the skintones look realistic. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 which is also impressive. The dialogue is always clear and audible, showing no distortion. The film is filled with surround sound effects and nice moments where the subwoofer kicks in. The fight scenes sound fantastic, with the gunshots filling the speakers.

The Once Upon a Time in Mexico DVD is filled with extras. We start with an audio commentary from director Robert Rodriguez, where he talks non-stop throughout the film. The enthusiastic Rodriquez touches on every facet of the film -- the scrip, the actors, the location, effects, music -- and gives us a very clear picture of how and why the movie was made. He also explains how Once Upon a Time in Mexico fits into the trilogy. The DVD also includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 track which features music and sound design only. This track also has a commentary with Rodriguez, where he talks about the score and the sound effects and how they influence the film. The DVD contains six featurettes. In "Ten Minute Film School" (9 minutes), Rodriguez preaches about the ease and versatility of shooting digitally and shows how many elements of the film were added during post-production using digital visual effects. Rodriguez takes us "Inside Troublemaker Studios" (11 minutes) to give us a tour of his garage, in which he's assembled a sound mixing stage, along with editing, music, and special effects consoles. With "Ten Minute Cooking School" (6 minutes), Rodriguez goes all HGTV on us and shows how to cook puerco pibil, a dish which is prominently featured in the film. (I do like the fact that he has his own menus.) "Film is Dead: An Evening with Robert Rodriguez" (13 minutes) is a presentation that Rodriguez did in July, 2003 at Sony Pictures Studios, in which he again discusses the magic of shooting digitally. Actor Danny Trejo makes a guest appearance here. "The Anti-Hero's Journey" (18 minutes) gives an overview of all three films in the series, and then becomes a making-of featurette for Once Upon a Time in Mexico, offering behind-the-scenes footage and comments from the actors. Finally, "The Good, the Bad, and The Bloody: Inside KNK FX" (19 minutes) explores the relationship between Rodriguez and the staff at KNB, who then go on to demonstrate how the FX in the film were accomplished. The DVD also contains 8 deleted scenes which can be viewed with or without commentary from Rodriguez. It should be noted that there is quite a bit of Johnny Deep footage here, which is surprising as he was only on-set for 8 days! The extras are rounded out by filmograhpies for cast & crew and two trailers for Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the Redband and Greenband previews, both of which are presented 16 x 9.

5 out of 10 Jackasses

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