Once Upon A Time In Mexico (2003)

Rating: ***
Release Date: 9/12/03
Written, Directed, Shot, And Edited By: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Johnny Depp, Cheech Marin, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Mickey Rourke, Willem Dafoe, Rubén Blades

Director Robert Rodriguez revisits his roots with this epic action film that suffers only from its lack of a cohesive narrative. That and a severe lack of Salma Hayek. Picking up several years after "Desperado" (1995), El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) gets pressed into service by a psychotic CIA agent (a deliriously eccentric Johnny Depp), and offered a chance to avenge the death of his wife and daughter. A plot is hatched to assassinate the president of Mexico and overthrow the government, and everyone seems to have divided loyalties and moral ambiguities. It is a serious and constant chore to keep track of who the good guys are (if any) and who has double-crossed who.

As you would expect from Rodriguez, the pace is frantic, the action is insane, and the characters are completely over the top. The whole thing feels like a classic Hong Kong action film or Spaghetti Western, with ruthlessly unflinching set pieces, unapologetic violence, and hilariously larger than life characters. Even the title seems to pay homage to Tsui Hark and Sergio Leone. The film has a constant sense of tension and urgency, and is full of quick cuts and dynamic angles. It also has strong B-movie sensibilities to it, which harkens back to a simpler time.

The characters are all wonderful, and Eva Mendes with a gun is quite yummy. However, I was most impressed by FBI agent Rubén Blades, who seemed to bring a real sense of honor and dignity to the film. Perhaps because he was the only one in the film who was playing it straight, compared to all the other outlandish characters. Johnny Depp is hilarious and completely despicable until the final twenty minutes of the film when he rises to superhero status like the rest of the cast. Very cool. Unfortunately, the confusion and discontinuity in the film make it fall short of being a masterpiece.