The opening credits to Once Upon a Time in Mexico slyly proclaim it to be a “Flick by Robert Rodriguez,” and after spending 101 minutes in the theater, I can think of no better way to describe this film. Rodriguez, the director of the highly successful Spy Kids series, returns to his roots in this third installment in the El Mariachi series with a film that showcases his skill and passion with the camera as well as his lack of interest in tackling any sort of serious subject matter. Once Upon a Time is beautifully shot and at times highly entertaining, but loses momentum dramatically due to an incomprehensible storyline. The credits also boast that the movie was “written, scored and cut” by Robert Rodriguez, but he apparently spent too much time on the latter two and not enough constructing a plot that fully utilizes the talent of his impressive cast. Still, this is another enjoyable effort from one of the few filmmakers left who has style to spare. While it falls short of Mariachi, one of my favorite action movies, Once Upon a Time is another well-shot action film that achieves all it aspires to: it looks great.
The film focuses on the exploits of CIA operative Sands (Depp) and Mexican folk hero, El Mariachi (Banderas, who reprises his role from Desperado). El Mariachi has turned to a life of isolation in rural Mexico after the murder of his wife (Hayek) and child He is dug out of retirement by Sands, who needs him to prevent a military coup by killing the man who slaughtered his family. The situation is complicated by the involvement of the Mexican drug kingpin Barillo (Dafoe) and two federal agents, one Mexican (Mendes) and one American. The plot has innumerable twists and seems to operate only to set up the shots that Rodriguez had dreamed of shooting. There are also several extended action sequences, usually involving El Mariachi killing countless black-clothed villains before making his daring escape. But despite the over the top action, viewers can’t help but smile at the unabashed joy Rodriguez injects into his movies.
This film is clearly an ode to the work of Sergio Leone, creator of the spaghetti western, and Banderas does an admirable job of looking pained and inwardly tortured by the constant flashbacks of his late family. Less appropriate is the typically quirky and eccentric Depp, who shoots the cook in the first half hour of the film because his food was too good. His off-beat performance hardly fits in a movie which is purposely melodramatic. A more tightly wound plot would probably have managed to cut Depp completely without losing much. Dafoe and Rourke are wasted, as neither is given the opportunity to do much beyond snarl and look menacing. Mendes is stunning as Depp’s love interest, but unconvincing in conveying her motives. The film lacks the heat that Hayek lent to Desperado, and instead becomes a tale of revenge and violence where even the characters don’t always seem to know who they are killing or why they are doing it. The second half of the movie becomes a random collection of face-offs and showdowns, where the good guy predictably comes out ahead in every instance.
To judge Once Upon a Time only on its plot failings would ignore the goal of the movie, which is to captivate us with beautiful scenes, haunting ballads and larger than life characters. Rodriguez clearly has talent and the ability to convey the dusty beauty of Mexico and its people like few others. The question is now whether he will continue to make movies that are pure entertainment like this and From Dusk till Dawn or if he will use his abilities to capture the spirit of his country and its people like compatriot Alfonso Cuaron in Y Tu Mama Tambien. Until he chooses to inject some substance into his well-defined style, I guess we’ll have to be content to sit back and enjoy his gift for making a great-looking movie.