Posted: 09/22/2003


Once Upon a Time in Mexico


by Del Harvey

Director Rodriguez completes his El Mariachi/Desperado trilogy with a dull bang.

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Roberto Rodriguez (El Mariachi, From Dusk Til Dawn) has completed his mythic hero series with Once Upon A Time In Mexico, a film which could have been much better. Once Upon A Time has one of the most electrifying opening sequences in recent film memory. Unfortunately, Rodriguez could not sustain this level of intensity beyond the first quarter of the film, and the deterioration is so rapid and obvious that any viewer knows what will happen an hour before the final reel appears on the screen.

This installment opens with Cheech Marin (portraying a different character from his previous Desperado role), unspooling the now legendary tale of El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) to a rogue CIA agent, played by a gaunt looking Johnny Depp (Chocolat, Benny & Joon). The story-within-a-story brings us up to speed on El Mariachi, the righteous vigilante whose mythic hero’s reputation has spread throughout the land. Salma Hayek (Frida), reprising her role as Carolina, puts her sumptuous talent to good use as a knife-wielding seductress who can kill without remorse. This would all be perfectly fine if this were El Mariachi or Desperado, but in Once Upon a Time in Mexico our two main characters take a back seat to the CIA agent and an ambitious drug lord, played with grim vitriol by a dark Willem Dafoe (Platoon, Mississippi Burning), who schemes to overthrow the President of Mexico with the help of his heavy, a turncoat agent (a very menacing Mickey Rourke—Year of the Dragon, Get Carter).

The problem here seems to be too many characters and not enough plot. Or too much plot and not enough film, and an ending that finds resolution by giving in to popular culture and exploding into an overlong and overwrought shoot-out which seems to exist simply so that things can be blown up or shot at. The violence level in this film is very high, with bloodied eye sockets and legs ripped from hips, etc. This film is beneath Rodriguez’ ability, and lacks the humor of his previous entries in this series.

If you must see Once Upon A Time in Mexico, wait until it appears on your local video shelf. You’ll be happy you saved a few bucks.

Del Harvey is a writer and screenwriting teacher at Columbia College Chicago.

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