Once Upon A Time In Mexico (2003)

So we finish the El Mariachi trilogy with this one, but Robert Rodriguez Month will be continuing for another two Mondays after this. I will go on to say before we get into the review that it contains spoilers for Desperado. If you haven’t seen Desperado, I would more likely than not recommend seeing it first. However, I speak from experience when I say that I saw this trilogy backwards, making this my first. Would I have been better off seeing this first, second or third? Let us find out.

Set in October/early November (including Day Of The Dead) of modern-day Mexico (sometime between 2001 and 2003. The film was shot in 2001 and released in 2003) – our story revolves primarily around two characters. El Mariachi (played by the returning Antonio Banderas) and a corrupt psychopathic CIA Agent named Sheldon Sands (played by Johnny Depp) who is more charismatic anti-hero than a villain. We start with Sands sitting in a restaurant, as he decides to buy information from a one-eyed man called Belini (played by Cheech Marin, who was the Bartender in Desperado. In true Spaghetti Western fashion; a returning actor plays a different character). Belini tells his version of Steve Buscemi’s tale of El Mariachi to Sands that of the Biggest Mexican you will ever see walking into a bar with a guitar case full of weapons and cleaning the house. However, his telling of the tale is that of the agnostic. He thinks it’s very far fetched but doesn’t deny the man behind the Legend. As every Legend has some truth to it. The information leads to Sands hiring Cucuy (played by a returning Danny Trejo, now possessing his trademark long hair), who goes to the village where El is hiding and flushes him out by shooting an elderly guitar maker. El and Sands meet, where El’s want is gradually defined: El’s goal is to assassinate General Emiliano Marquez. In return, he gets a clean slate – freedom. With this, he prepares. He gets his guitar case, which he kept with his Bandmates. Then he got the Band back together (a band of weapon-wielding mariachis who also work as mariachis. Which includes the singer Enrique Iglesias, who, to my surprise, actually had a cameo appearance as one of the hitmen in Desperado).

Now to focus on the many details:

The acting was (mostly) Strong. I had few, if any, complaints about it. Like Desperado, it had a great cast. Including Antonio Banderas, Johnny Depp, Salma Hayek, Willem Dafoe, Cheech Marin, Mickey Rourke, Danny Trejo, and a lesser-known Eva Mendez. With a budget of $29 million (compared to $7 million for Desperado), he could afford some excellent people, and what they all did together looked like they had some fun.    

The characters great (for the most part) and are easily the main reason to watch the film (along with its choice of the cast). Much like in Desperado, El has a band, and here they are a lot more engaged in what is happening rather than being called in for the final battle. We also bare-witness to El becoming a different Hollywood badass. In Desperado, he was ‘Killer Mexican Batman’ and here he is ‘Mexican Rambo’. Depp as Sands is fantastic. You wouldn’t think he did all of his scenes in eight days, but this was the case. When Depp was on screen, even Banderas took a passenger seat.

The story…oh the story. This isn’t awe, but a groan. Desperado had one story and focused on it. The story of El. Here, four Stories are going on at once. Yes, four! There’s El Mariachi’s story, Agent Sands’ story, Jorge Ramirez’s story, and Barillo’s story. Rather than just one villain, we have at least two. We have a civil war going on as well. And at least three revenge stories are playing out. And guess what? The Script was forty-five pages long! The average Script is eighty to a hundred – yet it is messier than one of the film’s own shootouts. Now don’t get me wrong, this film is fun in its building blocks. The scenes are (mostly) entertaining. It has great comedy, and every scene with Johnny Depp as Sands literally steals the show. A daft pile of craziness that can be somehow redeemed by the reputation that Rodriguez had earned at this point. In other words, “Oh, it’s his thing. Don’t worry. He knows what he likes”.

The art, cinematography and special effects are a mixed bag for this one. With triple the budget came some Freedoms, and among the Freedoms provided is CGI, which Desperado didn’t have (or at least, didn’t have abundantly). However, even on the DVD from 2005, the CGI leaves a lot to be desired. The cinematography is still strong. In fact, the wide-angle drone/helicopter shots were excellent. But some action scenes were clipped in such a way that they didn’t flow. I’m talking about literal frames spliced together that look very rough. The practical effects are much better than the CGI, without a doubt. I appreciate that they used CGI gunfire on top of rubber bullet shots. As a means of protecting the church that they were shooting in for one scene.

The music was (Primarily) composed by director Robert Rodriguez, and in my opinion, this is a step down from Desperado. But it still possessed a lot of personality. No Tito & Tarantula, no Los Lobos and no Dire Straits. But it suited both the film and the period regardless.

Would I recommend Once Upon A Time In Mexico?…No, not really. Don’t get me wrong, it has some of the good qualities but…that story. That plot was dire. Or, more specifically, this should have been formatted differently. In an age where TV shows have become as Important and as well produced as cinema, this would have been a great show. Perhaps, for one season with thirteen episodes at forty-two minutes each, rather than a one hundred minute film that was the equivalent of too many cooks spoiling the broth. The whole thing comes across as…bloated. To say the least, you could actually skip this film altogether and just end El’s story with Desperado. Perhaps, even splice some of the flashback scenes from this film into Desperado’s ending to make it a fuller epilogue. El was happy at the end of Desperado. We can leave him that way. 

Acting: ****1/2

Characters: ****1/2

Story: *1/2 (But up to ****1/4 for some individual scenes)

Art: ***1/2

CGI/Special Effects: ***1/4

Music: ****

Cinematography: ****

Overall: ***1/4

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