Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 16, 2004)
Many directors put out two films in the same year, but in 2003, Robert Rodriguez did something very unusual. Not only did he release both
and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, but the two movies came out within seven weeks of each other! That’s a pretty rapid turnaround, but that fits with Rodriguez’s personality and style.
In another unusual move, both of these flicks ended trilogies, and Mexico did that in a different way as well. The story started with 1993’s micro-budgeted El Mariachi and continued with 1995’s Desperado. The weird part came from the recasting of the lead between flicks; with Desperado’s higher – though still relatively low by Hollywood standards – budget came a “name” actor in Antonio Banderas.
Eight years later, Banderas remains in place as Rodriguez finishes the story of the Mariachi. We quickly get reacquainted as we see El Mariachi (Banderas) and his love Carolina (Salma Hayek). We learn that she once was with General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil) who didn’t want to let her go, so they attempted to kill him. Carolina put a bullet in Marquez’s heart but he didn’t die.
From there we meet a mysterious dude named Sands (Johnny Depp) who has his thugs nab Mariachi. We find out that the cartel run by Barillo (Willem Dafoe) will pay Marquez to assassinate the current Mexican president (Pedro Armendariz). Sands wants Mariachi to kill Marquez but not until after the general slays the president.
The film presents a fairly complicated plot, but it mainly boils down to that story. The entire tale leads toward a climactic Day of the Dead speech by the president at which the planned assassinations will occur. We also find out what happened to Carolina.
My synopsis makes the movie sound pretty simple and straightforward, but unfortunately, it becomes quite convoluted. That creates one of the movie’s main weaknesses. The plot follows a rambling path and doesn’t go in terribly logical ways. Its tone shifts fairly radically for little discernible reason. Rodriguez manages to tie things together acceptably well, but the film often feels scattered and unfocused.
The flick also suffers from “guest star-itis”. In addition to the actors already mentioned, Mexico features moderately known performers like Mickey Rourke, Ruben Blades, Enrique Iglesias, and Eva Mendes. At times it feels like the movie tries harder to fit in all these performers and their plots than it attempts to maintain a coherent story.
This means that the Mariachi often comes across as a guest in his own flick. He comes and goes without much impact and doesn’t seem like a primary participant. Carolina particularly offers little presence; to see Hayek billed second among the various players seems odd given her essential absence from the film. Depp comes across as the main player in the flick, but even he vanishes for long periods. This leaves the movie without much focus.
A lot of these issues make more sense when you learn about the film’s production. It went through rushed circumstances, and some of the actors – especially Hayek – appear little simply because they weren’t available to do more than that. Knowledge of these restraints allow us to better understand why the film takes the path it does, but this information doesn’t actually compensate and the results any less disjointed.
Not that Mexico lacks any positives. Rodriguez continues to display his talents as an action director. He pulls off some genuinely exciting set pieces. In particular, one in which Mariachi and Carolina escape from a fifth-floor window while chained together seems inventive and fun. A few more good scenes appear, and these give the film life at times.
As usual, Depp provides a fine performance. He makes Sands a glib and light performance that seems both amusing and entertaining. None of the other actors display any real problems, but only Depp manages to stand out from the crowd. In his limited time, he makes a real impression and creates the flick’s best moments.
Unfortunately, these bits pop up too infrequently to make Once Upon a Time in Mexico. The movie has its moments, but these don’t occur often enough to allow the film to prosper. Mexico gives us some sporadic entertainment but remains something of a disappointment.