THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO"

There are a lot of filmmakers I admire tremendously– Soderberg, Burton, Tarantino, Spielberg, Scorsese, the Coens, just to name a few – and I admire them all for very different reasons. Then there’s Robert Rodriguez, who occupies a unique place in my movie-loving heart. You know those one-man bands where a single person plays about five or six instruments at once? Well that’s Rodriguez. The guy not only writes and directs, he also does his own cinematography, his own editing, and his own music. He even has his own digital effects studio. All this, plus he absolutely insists on making his movies as cost-efficient as possible (Rodriguez’s summer smash Spy Kids 3-D was made for no more than about $35 million – a bargain by Hollywood standards). Perhaps what I admire so much about Rodriguez is that he’s a filmmaking force; he combines bottomless creative energy with a healthy desire to buck conventional wisdom about how movies should be made. He’s a maverick that even a studio bigwig can love.

The talent of Robert Rodriguez can certainly be found in the Spy Kids trilogy, but his native pride shows most in his other trilogy. In 1992, El Mariachi became famous as the “$7,000 movie” but anyone who saw it quickly forgot about budget and became amazed by the imaginative style of storytelling it contained. The low-budget tale of a Mexican musician who exacts revenge against those who have wronged him inspired a studio-backed sequel called Desperado in 1995. Boasting a cast including the little-known Antonio Banderas and the unknown (in this country, at least) Salma Hayek, the picture took the appeal of its predecessor and cranked it up a notch with explosive action. Part three of the saga - Once Upon a Time in Mexico - takes things to yet another level, adding a complex story that involves double-dealing galore.

Johnny Depp plays Sands, a CIA agent in Mexico to monitor a planned coup de tat. A drug kingpin named Barrillo (Willem Dafoe) has arranged for the president to be assassinated. He then plans to put a psychotic military general into power. The CIA is fine with the president being killed, but they don’t want the general to take over. Sands uses his connections to track down the mythical “El Mariachi” (Banderas) to murder the general after the coup de tat. El Mariachi takes the job for revenge; the general previously killed his wife Carolina (Hayek, in several flashback scenes) and young daughter. He gets some help from fellow mariachis Lorenzo (Enrique Iglesias) and Fideo (Marco Leonardi).

At first, I found myself waiting patiently for Once Upon a Time in Mexico to really get rolling. The previous film, Desperado, had been wall-to-wall action. I assumed this one would be the same way. After about 20 minutes, I realized the movie was rolling. Although there is still plenty of action here, the film is more about the double-crossings and behind-the-scenes machinations of the CIA plan than it is about gunplay. Once I figured that out, I really started to have fun. Rodriguez has wisely given each movie its own distinct flair. This one begins with the Sands character, who basically runs around trying to pit all the other characters against each other. The action that occurs comes out of that scenario. The approach is different from the first two pictures, and I liked how endlessly inventive Rodriguez gets with the idea.

The action scenes – when they come – are just as wild and over-the-top as those in Desperado. There’s definitely a sense of myth here. Myths often involve a morsel of truth, surrounded by details that have become exaggerated along the way. The screenplay understands that and uses it to good advantage. El Mariachi is always bigger than life. He is deadly, yes, but he also has a slightly unreal quality about him. He is like someone from long ago who still inhabits the thoughts of a country decades later. He continues to be real because people still believe in him.

Really, the keys to the success of this series have always been the action (which, again, is first rate) and the casting. Rodriguez really knows what to do with Antonio Banderas; most other directors do not. The actor has a smoldering intensity that he brings to his often-laconic character. Again, it plays into the mythical quality of El Mariachi. Johnny Depp, coming off a beloved performance in Pirates of the Caribbean is really quite extraordinary here. He gives Sands a humorously slimy personality. The guy practically crawls around Mexico stirring up trouble, then sits back to be amused by his own handiwork. He’s a real weasel, and Depp plays him hilariously.

I enjoyed this movie a lot, but I guess its primary limitation is familiarity. In other words, it’s a good sequel, but it’s still a sequel. Robert Rodriguez has made eight films so far. Six of them have been either Mariachi movies or Spy Kids movies. It’s been a fun and enjoyable ride, but it’s time for him to move on and do something else. A filmmaker this prodigiously talented probably has a lot more tricks up his sleeve. I, for one, can’t wait to see them.

( out of four)


Once Upon a Time in Mexico is rated R for strong violence, and for language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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