Maybe Robert Rodriquez has been so engaged in making his successful Spy Kids film series that he forgot where he came from. You see, Rodriquez made El Mariachi, in 1992. It was an indie hit with feeling, poise and flare that got him on the map. Its adequate sequel, Desperado, rocketed Antonio Banderas to fame with its great action scenes.
You would think that having two thirds of a trilogy being pretty good film-wise would be enough. Alas not, for Rodriguez has made Once Upon A Time In Mexico.
The film opens in Mexico, with CIA Agent Sands, played by the cool and calm Johnny Depp, looking for El Mariachi. He needs El Mariachi to set his plan into motion to 'even the balance of power' between a military general, a drug cartel and the President.
In the meantime, El Mariachi, again played with dark, brooding efficiency by Antonio Banderas, sulks alone. He is a recluse on the run. A Mexican General named Marquez has killed his wife Carolina and his daughter. Without them, the Mariachi is a sad mess.
El Mariachi will be caught in the middle of all three sides, each vying for their own agenda. The film has many angles and subplots: Besides El Mariachi wanting revenge; besides Depp trying to balance out the nationís leadership; besides another drug kingpin named Barillo eluding capture by staging a hokey plastic surgery operation (Mickey Rourke plays a wanted felon and Barillo's sideman). By the way, Barillo, the president, and an Ex-FBI agent are looking for redemption, thereís a drug agent turned bad, montage scenes of the Mariachi's dead family and a fugitive on the lamb, looking for a way out. Meanwhile, Sands is at the corrupt center, stirring the pot and pulling the strings. Confused yet? You should be. There are so many characters here that you need a flow chart. Plus they aren't well developed and their motives aren't always clear.
Obviously, there is too much going on here. Without mincing words, Once Upon A Time In Mexico is a mess. It meanders and suffers from too much plot and too many characters. He easily could have eliminated either Sands or the Mariachi and had a great movie.
The best thing about the film are its two main stars. Depp steals the film as Sands. He is corrupt, devious, and evil--yet somehow charming and funny. He breathes some life into that seedy soul. Banderas is really good here, also. His best scenes involve no spoken dialogue but facial expressions. He acts quietly here. His quiet demeanor and brooding provide the Mariachi with depth and substance.
There are some good things about the movie. The film features nice nuanced touches, like bringing back Cheech Marin as the short bartender and Selma Hayak as Carolina.
The cinematography is first-rate and the acting is fine, despite the bad script. The use of religious symbolism is excessive, but not unbearable. Rodriguez manages to make Mexico look both spacious, open and beautiful and conversely, seedy, corrupt and bleak.
The supporting cast is solid. This is exemplified by the unlikely acting prowess of singer Enrique Iglasias. Mickey Rourke is on a hot comeback streak and while his character is barely fleshed out, he manages to really add dimension to the film. Ruben Blades is great as a retired FBI agent, but he could have more depth and character explanation. Hayak appears in flashbacks only, Rourke is in a few scenes as Barillo's fugitive American henchman. Eva Mendez plays Depp's love interest, but we never really figure out where she is coming from until the plot twists--then she's sort of forgotten. We also barely get to know the two members of the Mariachi posse.
It's as if Rodriguez got great actors for short periods of time and shot their scenes first and linked them together in a flimsy plot later. He is over-reaching. This is a shoot 'em up drama trying to be more than that. If youíre type of movie is all about action and violence, with no substance behind it, itís youíre kind of movie. But if you need a little more, like meaning, for exampleÖdonít waste your time.