I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

When last we saw the Mariachi, he had killed his drug dealer brother to avenge his lover’s death and the career-ending injury of his hand. He had found a new love (Carolina) and had indirectly caused the shooting of a little boy he had given guitar lessons to. He decided to give up violence, but only a little bit, so he kept his guitar case full of weapons “just in case.”

When we see him again in ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO he has become even more mythical than before. Instead of having to send Steve Buscemi to bars to make up stories about him, the bartenders themselves tell the stories. His hand has healed so he can play guitar better than ever, in fact he likes to just walk around playing guitar even when people are trying to kill him. Robert Rodriguez knows how to make a hand made guitar look like the most beautiful thing in the world, so it’s good that the Mariachi is hiding out in a town of guitar makers who like him to test their creations.

Once Upon a Time in MexicoIn DESPERADO, Mr. Rodriguez really fucked around with the conventions of sequels and action storytelling. He put a large gap between DESPERADO and EL MARIACHI where we the viewers had to imagine how this guy went from a regular dude to Antonio fucking Banderas, how Steve Buscemi became like a brother to him, and how he picked up these other badass mariachi friends who will give their lives for him and fire rockets out of their guitar cases.

And remember how Rodriguez made a subplot about one of the villain’s henchmen? You see this babyfaced guy’s initiation into the family, where he proves himself by spinkicking a guy AFTER having his leg broken. You feel a connection to this guy and you know that you’re following him for a reason… but you’re wrong! He just gets an unspectacular death by bullet like any nameless, faceless thug. You never know what to expect.

In ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO there’s an even bigger gap between the movies. So much has happened that there are flashbacks back to what happened since DESPERADO. I think Rodriguez is pretending this is Mariachi 4 and it is following up on the loose ends from part 3 (Mariachi 3-D). So the Mariachi breaks a vow that is probaly from part 3 and not part 2. He avenges a couple deaths from part 3. Maybe in part 3 we saw where he met these two more gunfighter mariachis who help him out.

That is one of the reasons I love these movies. They take place in a world where if you are a gunfighter mariachi, you will be able to hook up with others like you. I wonder if in DESPERADO those stories everybody heard about the guy with the guitar case full of weapons – well we know now that there are at least 5 people like that. Are these stories even about the same guy? Maybe there’s a sixth one out there that really is the biggest Mexican you’ve ever seen.

One of the new mariachis is played by the singer Enrique Iglesias. I have a theory that his character could be the little guitar playing boy from DESPERADO now grown up. That is why he keeps the Mariachi’s guitar case full of weapons. There is nothing in the movie to tell you that he is that boy, but there’s nothing to prove otherwise. So to me, he is that boy, and you fuckers can’t do a thing about it.

There are other connections to the other movies that are undeniable though. Like a CGId up remake of the bus stunt in EL MARIACHI. And a cell phone ring of ‘Cancion Del Mariachi’, the song from the opening dream sequence in DESPERADO.

Ah shit man, I’ll just say it. This is a great fucking movie. Part of me was worried that Rodriguez was gonna let us down. It’s been 8 years since DESPERADO and although he’s never made a horrible piece of garbage, he hasn’t really lived up to my expectations. Back then the guy had the blood of Leone and Woo pumping through his veins, he had Tarantino whispering in his ear and he still came up with this original vision that combined westerns with Mexican music and a cartoon sensibility and turned it all into, you know, whatever excactly DESPERADO is. After that he made movies that were amusing, like the first SPY KIDS, but you go back and watch DESPERADO again and you wonder what ever happened to THAT Robert Rodriguez.

Well turns out he’s still in there somewhere. Like the title suggests this one puts the Mariachi (now nicknamed “El… as in ‘the'”) in a more epic situation. A nutball CIA agent named Sands (John Depp) hires him to kill a general who is planning a coup and who also happened to have ruined his life in the nonexistent part 3. (Man, this is the third fucking asshole that’s ruined the Mariachi’s life. Leave this fucking guy alone, people.) There is also a drug kingpin who’s about to get surgery and a corrupt cop and an FBI agent played by Ruben Blades and Mickey Rourke always holds a chihuaha behind his back out of respect. It’s real complicated, it would take too long to go into so I won’t explain it.

Well actually also I really didn’t understand what all these factions were trying to do exactly. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I was gonna see the movie again anyway. Give me something to look forward to.

Just the shots are more epic though. You definitely see the Leone influence with lots of wide shots, wind blowing, intense closeups of eyes. You see the Mariachi about a football field away playing guitar on top of a building. There’s a big riot during a Day of the Dead parade. When El sits down and reminisces about Carolina, his flashback is a big action scene. You know this is a real action movie when the love flashback is a big chase scene with complimentary fiery explosions.

The music is more epic too. Rodriguez has been known to write, direct, edit and camera operate for his movies. Now he adds score composer to the list of credits. (He’s also one of the guitarists.) DESPERADO had a great score by Los Lobos. This one adds an orchestra. Also many of the actors were involved in the music – Salma Hayek sings a song, Ruben Blades and Antonio Banderas apparently had some kind of involvement, and Depp recorded the great theme for his character.

If I had one single complaint about this movie, and I say that because I do have one single complaint about this movie, it’s that there’s not enough Mariachi. Like the man with no name in THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, the Mariachi has to share the movie with other characters, in this case Depp’s character Sands. So although he’s still the hero, he doesn’t get as much focus as he did in the other two movies. This is not really a weakness of the movie, it’s just that I like that character and I’ve been waiting a long fucking time for this. Why can’t you give me a 3 hour movie you bastards.

But the character of Sands is great. I know Mr. Depp hangs out with Marlon Brando alot, and I think he has some of the same kooky genius. Here he plays a CIA agent who wears tacky thrift store t-shirts and unneccessary fake beards and mustaches. He’s not your traditional villain. He’s a total goofball. There is an abrupt change in the movie where this manipulative CIA asshole gets his, well, I won’t give it away but he loses a pair of round organs that are not testacles, that are used for seeing with. They get poked out by a mad bandaged ghoul. So he takes it in stride, he puts on a funny getup and walks around blind trying to shoot people. And suddenly, for no reason at all, we are expected to sympathize with this asshole. And better yet we go, okay man, we’ll do it. That blind gunfighter thing, that takes spunk. There is a hint that this character will get his own spinoff movie, and let me just say I am already in line. Well actually I am not physically in line, but I left my coat in line to mark my place. That should count in my opinion.

If you were one of those people who thought DESPERADO was too silly, then you better stay home and hide under your blankets from this one. Except for the mariachi, there is more of almost everything the rest of us want. More violence, more atmosphere, more guitar playing, more guitars, more funny lines. Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo and Tito Larriva all died in DESPERADO, so no problem, this time they play different characters.

I don’t know what anybody else will think, but I love this fucking movie. Congratulations Robert Rodriguez on your perfect trilogy. (not spy kids.)

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Friday, September 12th, 2003 at 1:55 am and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”

  1. Man i really enjoy your reviews, i bought your two books i cant get enough. It’s good that somebody out there loves R. Rodriguez as much as i do.

  2. I loved this movie and El Mariachi but for some reason Desperado never clicked for me. I mean I don’t hate it. It’s okay. The first scene is fantastic but I have to admit I have trouble staying awake afterwards. I guess my problem might be that I just hate Antonio. The weakest parts of OUATIM are all of his scenes imo.

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