SEPTEMBER 11, 2003
'Once Upon a Time in Mexico' Resurrects Independent Action
By Eryn Green

“Once Upon a Time in Mexico”
Columbia Pictures
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay by Robert Rodriguez
Produced by Robert Rodriguez, Carlos Gallardo, Elizabeth Avellan
Starring Antonio Banderas, Johnny Depp, Ruben Blades, Salma Hayek, Mickey Rourke, Willem Dafoe, Enrique Iglesias, Cheech Marin, Eva Mendes
Rated R

(out of four)

“Once Upon a Time in Mexico” is such a popcorn flick that you don’t even need to buy any popcorn.

Think of Robert Rodriguez action films as Michael Bay pictures for the more elitist cinephile and “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” less a cinematic revolution than an enjoyable exercise in the art of renegade filmmaking.

Welcomed on the independent scene the same year as Indie legend Quentin Tarantino, Rodriguez debuted “El Mariachi” while Tarantino did “Reservoir Dogs.” He was one of a handful of filmmakers to hand the camera back to the film geek in the early 1990s. His subsequent work has been both moody and violent, gothic and childish.

The quick edits, the bloody, grainy violence, the basic, cliché, genre-oriented plot line—Rodriguez’s latest movie is definitely his own. Within the first few bars of a mandolin’s song in the opening title sequence, it is difficult to mistake the movie for anyone else’s.

If viewers are not intimately familiar with Rodrguez’s other work, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” might be a little hard to swallow, especially because the movie is undeniably weird—not just your typical shoot-em-up. I highly advise concerned viewers to re-watch “El Mariachi” and “Desperado” prior to viewing this film.

The opening sequence is more an homage to Rodriguez’s previous flicks than a vehicle of any new invention. Antonio Banderas is very much the “Desperado” (the trilogy’s second film) of old and his surreal, guitar-gun sequence—for which Rodriguez has become famous—is reminiscent of the dream-door sequence in the original “El Mariachi.”

That likeness is not, probably, a coincidence.

Rodriguez has been very open about the fact that this is the idealized continuance of his conceptual masterpiece of ultra-modern violence. The film ought to be, for Rodriguez, an over-funded and seriously-backed version of “Desperado,” which was, in itself, an over-funded and seriously-backed “El Mariachi,” which was…the point is, it has the money it needs to be perfect.

Rodriguez has proven that he has the ability to make budget-oriented, stylish, fast-paced movies short on plot but big on pretty explosions. Rodriguez never makes any apologies for his nonconformist school of filming, wherein he essentially forgoes tradition for style.

The enthusiasm he maintained in the beginning of his career is somewhat apparent in this latest film—astute audience members can almost see the director grinning behind his camera during the action shots—just on a larger, more corporately accessible scale.

Tragically, the movie has everything it needs, such as the actors, money and style necessary for it to be great. However, it ultimately falters as a whole. Rodriguez is trying to be in the same frame of mind as he was when he invented his mariachi style of camerawork, but there is too much to deal with for the minimalist, musically inclined style to work.

The entire picture was shot in a relatively short amount of time and each scene was done in few takes. This whirlwind schedule seems to have thrown Depp, who is traditionally a method actor. His performance is not as peculiar as it could have been, given that the hectic environment disturbed his notoriously temperamental acting groove.

Regardless of its pitfalls, though, the movie is fun.

Really, the plot is not about much, other than character revenge set to a revolution/love/misbegotten-rage backdrop, and a plot summary is thus wasted space.

The movie is not about the plot.

Rodriguez does push some boundaries both visually (namely, the Depp-car scene and the numerous hand-held digital shots) and graphically (one word: kneecaps) and the time spent in the theater is not wasted.

Rodriguez proves he is still fresh with his latest adaptation of his tired brainchild. Movie patrons heard outside the theater remarked, “Well, it’s Rodriguez…” And it is—for better or for worse.

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