Ostensibly the final chapter in Robert Rodriguez’ drug-lord-killin’ trilogy, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” is not so much a sequel as a different, more epic take on a familiar tune. The Mariachi With No Name (Antonio Banderas) is back, still alone and angry, determined to settle the score with drug lords again, but this time his beef is more specifically with a military general who used to go with Carolina (Salma Hayek) before she married El Mariachi. This sounds like we’re in for Desperado redux, but the revenge angle is actually not central to the story.
As the marketing campaign indicates, this is first and foremost Johnny Depp’s movie. The film opens and closes on him, and for long stretches Banderas is not even mentioned. I don’t think this was the initial intention, but I guess Rodriguez loved Depp’s performance so much that he kept expanding his part. No wonder, from the first time we see Sands he breathes cool and hilarious sleaziness. A casually corrupted CIA agent working the Mexico beat, he plays on whatever side will make him richer. When we meet him he’s arranging a meeting with the mythic Mexican gunslinger with the guitar case, whom he wants to use to get rid of the soldiers and drug dealers currently planning a coup d’état and…
Ok, it’s more complicated than that, in fact the plot is a convoluted mess juggling too many characters and not enough of a clear narrative, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I actually liked the chaotic feel of the film, how it has all these different people doing their things, and then they all run into each other during the wonderfully anarchic third act, which takes place during the Day of the Dead. So you have tons of people in skull masks running in the streets, with the army shooting up the city while the Presidente and his men barricade themselves, then you’ve got these three Mariachis getting involved… What makes this work is Rodriguez’ tremendous energy and how he clearly doesn’t take himself too seriously. This is like sped-up Sergio Leone, an awesome comic book epic of a burrito Western.
The film was shot on high-definition digital video, and I must say it looks almost as good as celluloid. I just love the feel of Mexico in those movies, the rugged beauty of the architecture, the heat, the sleepiness, the music… The shoot-outs are not exceptional (John Woo kind of closed the book on those during his Hong Kong heyday), but they’re exciting enough and in any case, the greatest pleasure lies in the countless little comic or stylistic beats. Banderas barely says 50 words through the film, but he’s as badass and sensual as ever. The cast also includes Mickey Rourke in a purple suit carrying a Chihuahua, Willem Dafoe pulling a Charlton Heston, Enrique Iglesias as a mariachi buddy of Banderas and Rodriguez regulars Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo, even though they were brutally killed in the last movie. And again, Johnny Depp, tons of fun every time he’s on screen with his sunglasses, hats, fake mustaches, cheesy tourist T-shirts, vintage lunchboxes and one damn great line after another.
“Are you a Mexi-can or a Mexi-can’t?”