When did Desperado become a SERIOUS film? In comparing the sequel, Once Upon a Time in Mexico to it, more than one critic has jumped in declaring it empty when held up to Director Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado masterpiece. I've even read more than one Godfather comparison. Reality check. The most memorable moments in Desperado revolve around a guitar mounted bazooka. That's not a high art, that's just ass kicking fun. With radio controlled guitar bombs and flame throwing Fender's, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is just continuing the tradition.
Dear Robert Rodriguez: Stop calling your movies Western's. Western: A film about life in the western US during the period of exploration and development. Last I checked, modern day Mexico isn't caught in a magic time bubble that allows it to exist in 1800's United States. Electric guitars, semi-automatics, and 57' Chevy's are more of a recent innovation. What is cool is that you boldly call this outing a “flick” in the credits. It’s the guitar playing hit man inside me that oddly respects that.
For this “flick”, Antonio Banderas reprises his role as El Mariachi. A folk hero, legend, and guitar toting warrior all in one, Once Upon a Time in Mexico finds him retired and broken after the murder of his one true love. Tracked down by a quirky CIA agent named Sands (Johnny Depp), El Mariachi ends tagging along as a single thread in one of Sands’ abundant schemes. Sands’ goals are never crystal clear, nor is the extremely complicated plot he involves everyone in straightened out. Someone wants the president dead; someone else wants the guy who has been hired to assassinate him rubbed out. Maybe Sands wants to kill them all. Your guess is as good as mine.
The point is lost in an ever growing cast list of characters that bogs Rodriguez’ intent down in a series of bad edits and time line flips. There’s a cartel running bad guy Barillo (Willem Dafoe) and his Chihuahua toting henchman Billy Chambers (Mickey Rourke). Chambers is the best developed of the two. Rourke clearly has a blast playing hide the Chihuahua around his mob boss but beyond that I still don’t know why Billy Chambers shows up. There’s a hot Mexican police babe (Eva Mendes) in league with Sands. She wants a big bust and Sands wants her uh… bust. Say hello to Jorge (Ruben Blades), a washed up FBI agent whose part could have been given to Johnny Depp. Jorge is an interesting character, I just think he ended up in the wrong movie and gets screen time that could have been better used by El Mariachi or Sands. Oh Enrique Iglesias is in there too. So are 15 other performers in fairly major roles. In fact, Rodriguez must have run out of actors in Hollywood, since Johnny Depp has a cameo where he plays a second and totally superfluous character. E-mail me if you figure out why.
Shot on the cheap, Once Upon a Time in Mexico uses a kitschy, grainy style to mix in sharp, stylized action with indie looking sloppiness. In a way, it looks like exactly what it is, a movie shot as quickly as possible and then edited together months after the fact and shunted into theaters. Johnny Depp has repeatedly commented on how amazed he was by how little time he spent on set (8 days to be exact). I wonder if Rodriguez rushed him through simply because he didn’t have time to direct him. If the credits are accurate, he was probably swamped doing almost every other job there was to do on the Mexico set from musical scoring, to film editing, to believe it or not, special effects.
The result of Rodriguez multi-tasking is a movie staunchly rooting for Mexico and its people. El Mariachi drapes himself in the Mexican flag and by extension a sudden bout of patriotism. The people and government of Mexico are portrayed as victims and heroes in the face of criminal uprising and unwanted US interference. El Mariachi becomes the sword of the people, he and his slightly drunken compadres standing up amidst Once Upon a Time in Mexico’s Telemundo-like confusion for the “MexiCAN’s”.
What’s amazing is that in spite of all this, there’s a lot in Once Upon a Time in Mexico that really works. Antonio Banderas is gripping and charismatic, even though I can’t remember him actually saying a word. He cuts a stark and dangerous figure, striding through the seedy world of Rodriguez’ Mexico. Depp too turns in another memorable performance. He gets all the best lines, the sort of dialogue you’ll be spouting off to your friends a year from now. Salma Hayek turns up alongside Banderas and could have been great. It’s just a shame she features more prominently on the Once Upon a Time in Mexico poster than she does in the actual movie.
The best news is that like Desperado, Mexico continues to declare an affinity for entertaining and over the top action bits. Rodriguez has a flair for it, and probably has just as much fun thinking this stuff up as we do watching it. Once Upon a Time is by far his campiest endeavor so far, reminding me in a less gory way of the EXTREMELY campy Tarantino script for Kill Bill I read several months ago. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. Where plot and plain common sense fails, Rodriguez delivers flat out cool. Guitar playing gunmen may have been done better in Desperado, but Once Upon a Time in Mexico does just enough on its own to keep things interesting, whether or not it makes any damn sense.