Once Upon A Time In Mexico

September, 2003, Thriller

Directed by:Robert Rodriguez

Starring:Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Enrique Iglesias, Marco Leonardi, Cheech Marin, Julio Oscar Mechoso, and with Rubén Blades

Once upon a time, young Mexican director Richard Rodriguez scraped $8,000 together and made a movie called El Mariachi, featuring a pudgy gun-toting guitarist whose ethics were as hard to discern as the movement of his gun-hand. A hit among the hip-film set, Hollywood gave him $3,000,000 and Antonio Banderas to make Desperado, a sequel with a higher body-count to match it's expanded budget. Not content to rest on his laurels, Rodriguez, (purportedly at the suggestion of Quentin Tarantino) had the temerity to name the final movie in this trilogy after Sergio Leone's epic Once Upon a Time in America. Any similarities between the quality of these two movies ends with their similar titles; the director, (also responsible for the highly successful Spy Kids movies) spent $30 million here in an exercise that demonstrates just how hard it is to improve on a modest original, especially when that had low aspirations to begin with.

 Banderas, the "man with no name", (a description stolen from Leone's Clint Eastwood character in Fistful of Dollars) finds himself forced out of retirement to avenge the murder of his wife, (played-in flashback-by Salma Hayek) while ostensibly helping Johnny Depp-a renegade C.I.A. operative- arrange the assassination of Mexico's president at the behest of deranged drug lord played-in curious makeup-by Willem Dafoe. Mickey Rourke (wearing no makeup, thanks to plastic surgeries more numerous than those of Michael Jackson) plays an American muscleman pursued by retired F.B.I. agent Ruben Blades, who just happens to be living in Mexico so he can keep an eye on Dafoe, who tortured and murdered Blade's former partner. Got it? Who cares? Rodriguez suffers from directorial mood swings, lurching from obvious parody of these comic-book characters into calculating references on poverty, political corruption and the cronyism of Mexican public officials. Could anyone other than a director of Mexican descent get away with this kind of loathsome caricature? 

There's no denying Rodriguez's skill with the camera; there's an abundance of energy and wonderful visual expansiveness in nearly every frame and Depp's knowingly craven C.I.A. agent exudes a gleefully viciousness as clever as it is pointless.  But the director isn't indebted to Leone here; he's actually aping the post "Pulp Fiction" world of Tarantino, who's pushed the boundaries of offensive violence in American films farther than anyone since Peckenpaugh did in The Wild Bunch. That film, like Leone's masterful western, featured both a solid plotline and real convictions about the messages being presented. In Mexico, Rodriguez manipulates his story and characters in an attempt to duplicate, in the most heavy-handed way, the scope of Leone's great lament of the Wild West's passing but succeeds only in descending into a kind of condescending self-parody. "Look what I've gotten you to pay for", he seems to say to his audience--"I can feed you slop and make you think it's haute cuisine." Is Rodriguez talented? Absolutely. Is he ripping off his audience here while insulting his national heritage? No question. How nakedly cynical is it to literally wrap his hero in the Mexican flag in the final frame? Profoundly….

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