When I sit down to watch a movie in the theatre—and I know I’m going to be reviewing it in a few hours—I often start mentally writing the review in my head during the film. Such was the case last night, as I started watching Once Upon a Time in Mexico. After about ten minutes, though, I realized I needed to quit analyzing and just go with it.
Everything you need to know about the film is in the credits, where auteur Robert Rodriguez is listed as having “Shot, Chopped, and Scored” (filmed, edited, and wrote the music to), as well as having written and directed the movie. One thing you have to give Rodriguez credit for: he knows what kind of movie he wants to make. Whether you like Once Upon a Time or not depends on what you think of him. (To help, I’ve listed a few of his films below).
Okay: so way back in 1992 Rodriguez makes this tiny Mexican film called El Mariachi, about a guitar playing killer. The film was a cult favorite. Three years later he made a slightly bigger (although only 3 million; still paltry by Hollywood standards) follow-up called Desperado, which was another hit. Finally his buddy Quentin Tarantino told Rodriguez about Sergio Leone. Sergio made these two tiny-budget films, Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, which became known as the “spaghetti westerns” and helped launch Clint Eastwood’s career. He followed that up with Once Upon a Time in the Old West. Tarantino told Rodriguez that he should do the same thing, and here we are.
There are two important things to consider in this film: Rodriguez and the cast. First, lets deal with the director himself. I wasn’t kidding before: he literally does almost everything in his films. This results in a singular vision that’s pure: you really are getting what he wanted. In this case, that means there’s a style Rodriguez has that is simply unique in modern cinema. The only thing close is Tarantino himself with Reservoir Dogs, the immortal Pulp Fiction, and hopefully (fingers crossed) next week’s Kill Bill.
Style is everything, and I do mean everything, because one thing Rodriguez has to scrimp on while doing most of the work is his script. Basically, there isn’t one. But for the most part, that’s okay. The movie is filled with hysterical one-liners, which pretty much covers the sparse dialogue. Most of the time you’re just watching Rodriguez at work while he zips around having fun. The action is at times jaw-dropping (there is a stunt involving manacles you’ll have to see to believe), and at all times stylish.
The style extends to the location and pacing too. The film is set in Mexico, ostensibly modern-day, but the plot line is at least 80 years out of date. I think that’s on purpose, though. Rodriguez pulls out every Mexican stereotype there is, but not in a bad way. Well, sort of in a bad way. Put it this way: if Speedy Gonzalez and his lazy cousin Slowpoke insult you, skip this movie. Every single Mexican on screen either gets killed, tries to (and often succeeds) kill others, or dresses in Skeletor masks. Even an 8-year old boy. Sounds horrible, but so do Speedy and Slowpoke if you’re just hearing about it. Seeing it, though, you get the joke. Again, style is everything. That really is what this is all about.
That and the cast. Rodriguez has gathered an IMPRESSIVE array of characters, including every quasi-looking Mexican actor Hollywood can find. Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo are there (you may not know their names but you’ll recognize them on sight), as is Mickey Rourke (back from Witness Protection, apparently), Willem Dafoe (more or less playing Willem Dafoe), and Enrique Iglesias. Enrique Iglesias! Personally, I’m not surprised, because if you’ve seen that music video where he “pretends” to have the hots for Anna Kournakova, you know the kid can act. Seriously, all three are great here.
Now let’s talk about the three above-title actors. Antonio Banderas returns for his third shot as El Mariachi (actually, he just goes by “El,” which translates into “The”). Banderas looks fantastic here, at least 10 years younger than I’ve seen him recently. It was hard not to have sexual thoughts about him, partly because Salma Hayek was mostly MIA.
Yes, better you learn it from me rather than be shocked and hurt. Even though Hayek is billed as one of the main stars, she’s only on screen for a few flashbacks, although for you Hayek fans those scenes are fantastic and there is a naked-through-sheer-material scene to pacify you. The female eye-candy in this film is provided by Eva Mendes, who is beautiful to be sure, and a decent enough actress, but who’s main contribution to the picture seems to be her tig ol’ bitties. Then again, maybe I missed her vast talent amidst the other “attributes.”
Which brings us to Johnny Depp. As long-time Hyperion X readers know, I have not always approved of Depp, but raved high and low after seeing him in a career-redefining role in Pirates of the Caribbean. Here Depp starts in like he’s almost the same character (he actually says a few of the same lines as Captain Jack Sparrow, but I couldn’t tell if that was on purpose yet). Initially Depp is mesmerizing: your eyes are always on him whenever he’s on screen.
However, there comes a point in the plot where circumstances change, and that does not go well (Depp starts looking like Brandon Lee in The Crow. You’ll know what I mean). In fact, Depp is astonishingly bad in this part of the movie, and utterly unbelievable. (Again, you’ll know what I’m saying as soon as you see it.) After the first two thirds of Depp’s performance were so wonderful, I almost felt sorry for the guy. I couldn’t tell if it was the director or Depp trying too hard. Either way, that part doesn’t work.
There’s also a section of the movie that was stiflingly boring, about 15 minutes or so. In my opinion, this is where the lack of coherent plot catches up to the film, and you realize when the stunts and crazy characters fade away there is nothing going on. Thankfully, though, this doesn’t last that long, and they soon get to the inevitable shoot out.
Overall I really enjoyed this movie, as did the people with me. I laughed my ass off, and wouldn’t mind seeing it again. It’s much funnier than Desperado, although not nearly as steamy. Still, a great way to waste a couple of hours.
Ratings (based on #121, which you need to have read in order to understand)
Skepticism Scale: 9.9 (out of 10), with a tenth of a point of realism (because let’s face it, if not every Mexican official is corrupt, a whole lot of them are).
Genre Grade: I call this Style-Noir, and on that basis, give it a B+.
Pantheon Percentile: Style is great, but as jean-jacket wearing people will tell you: it also changes. In the long run, that will hurt this movie, because there isn’t a timeless plot to be enjoyed through history. But the characters are a lot of fun and it is damn stylish. I say 57.
A few other Rodriguez films
This is the first of the gunslinger trilogy, although completely in Spanish. If Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico do it for you, this could be fun too, but unnecessary.
Salma Hayek’s debut to most of the world, and she is smoking hot. This movie is a lot of fun.
Hats off for a valiant effort, but this movie does not work for me. Tim Roth is a bellhop going back and forth to different hotel rooms on New Years Eve. Basically four separate vignettes. “The Misbehaviors” is okay, but the others are varying degrees of awful. Warning: Madonna tries to act.
From Dusk Till Dawn
A Preacher (Harvey Keitel) joins hardened criminals (George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino, who also wrote the script) to fight Vampires at a strange oasis in Mexico. Quite sexy and quite fun. If you like Tarantino or Rodriguez at all, you’ll like this.
Best kids movie in a long time. Don’t get thrown off by the sequels (haven’t seen ‘em, don’t plan to), and stick with this original gem. Two kids learn their parents are really secret agents but are in peril, so the kids have to save them. This is a movie that good-natured adults will enjoy too.