Once Upon a Time in Mexico
2003, R, 101 min. Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Starring Antonio Banderas, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Salma Hayek, Mickey Rourke, Enrique Iglesias.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Sept. 12, 2003
Like an armor-piercing bullet, this third "flick" (as the titles call it) in Rodriguez’s south-of-the-border action trilogy has a cool, shiny exterior and an explosive center. Maybe the cast and the budget went Hollywood, but Mexico is full of the same kid-in-a-candy-store playfulness that marked 1993’s shoestring breakthrough, El Mariachi. It’s packed with low angles and copter shots, drug-cartel heavies in bolo ties and purple-georgette pimp jackets, dramatic cruciform poses, detachable robot arms, bombastic stunt sequences, and foley effects that’ll blow your ass to the back of the room (a drop cloth yanked off a guitar case sounds like a sonic boom). And there’s still room left over for a healthy dose of satire and nationalistic bravado. ("Who are you guys?" a character inquires, breathlessly, of the heroes. "Sons of Mexico, sir," they reply.) In other words, the movie gets goofy from time to time – as when payola arrives in a vintage Clash of the Titans lunch box – but the filmmakers and cast have the style and the swagger to back it up. The story picks up with pistolero El Mariachi (Banderas), hired to assassinate a ruthless drug lord (Dafoe). Mix in a bizarre CIA agent (Depp), a retired G-man (Ruben Blades), a trigger-happy local cop (Eva Mendes), a Chihuahua, a chicle kid (Tony Valdes), and a Day of the Dead procession, and you have a whole lot of movie. But Rodriguez’s no-nonsense style keeps things moving along briskly. The film doesn’t even bog down with Depp, who’s been given comically overwritten dialogue and lots of space to exercise his tics. Too often a character who is a collection of quirks – as Depp’s is, with his spirit-gum beard, wacky voices, and tacky-tourist disguises – can overpower the film, drive it into Tarantinoid excesses of too-cool yammering and pop-culture omphaloskepsis. Depp’s leitmotif of puerco pibil almost tips the scales, but Rodriguez gives him the right amount of room to work while keeping the film on track. Perhaps most admirably, everyone seems to be having a good time. Rodriguez is visually inventive and doesn’t rely on process shots or pyrotechnics (though there are plenty, including one juicy squib that splatters the camera) to entertain. The best action sequence is a splendid escape segment with two unarmed characters chained together at the top of a building. Just the same, it bears mentioning that, as fun as it is, Mexico isn’t for family audiences. When the MPAA says "strong violence," they’re not shitting around.