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Once Upon a Time in Mexico

dir: Robert Rodriguez
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I am unsure as to whether Robert Rodriguez’s films are getting worse, or whether I just don’t like what he does as much as I used to. After watching this movie on DVD I spent an additional ten minutes watching a behind the scenes featurette called Fast, Cheap and In Control. I found this DVD extra more enjoyable than the movie itself. It showed various tricks and techniques used to perform and record the special effects and stunts during the film. It shows just how much an inventive and cost-effective crew can manage in a short period of time.

Ideally, such a circumstance would allow for more time to concentrate on pesky little details like a script or actual dialogue for its multitude of characters. There is precious little of that here. In fact, the movie seems to be a collection of disconnected money shots with little purpose beyond allowing Rodriguez to close off his El Mariachi trilogy, as if nations themselves were clamouring for it. Gagging for it, they were.

I admit that when El Mariachi first appeared on the scene, I was quite impressed. For a film that had been made (allegedly) with $7000 and the smell of an oily bit of celluloid, action fans were impressed by this Hong Kong style actioner made in Mexico. This was after all the era when John Woo, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam et al were still making decent films and Western eyes had turned to the soon-to-be former British colony for its action fix. Inspired by such Texas native Robert Rodriguez cried ‘me too’ and set about making his own movie using the bullet-infused Asian template.

After garnering buzz at the various indie film festivals at the time, El Mariachi was picked up by a major, had a bunch of post-production done on it, and was then released worldwide and became something of a minor hit.

Rodriguez was given a shitload of cash to basically remake El Mariachi, which ended up being its putative sequel, Desperado. Of course with more money comes more responsibility to provide a large-sized hit. Thus you put Spanish actor Antonio Banderas in the lead, Salma Hayek in as the love interest, and the ubiquitous Steve Buscemi in as the comic relief. You also give Quentin Tarantino a cameo, thus disproving the existence of God once again. A benevolent Creator would not allow Tarantino to appear in films, it just couldn’t happen and St Augustine or Thomas Aquinas themselves couldn’t convince me otherwise with all the theological gymnastics available in this world or the next.

It’s essentially the same film as the first, it just looks far shinier, has bigger stunts, and has fleeting glimpses of a naked Salma. All films are improved in direct proportion to the amount of skin Salma gets to display. Of course she cannot act worth a damn, but it’s nice to have her around. It doesn’t make it that great a film, but for a cheesy action gunfest it was reasonably entertaining in a ‘I don’t need alcohol to enjoy this, only to enhance it’ kind of way.

This third film is inexplicable in that there really isn’t a worthwhile reason for it to exist. Just like reality tv. I can’t imagine that there were hordes of moviegoers scratching at the doors of theatres like brain-hungry zombies begging for another movie to be made with the Mariachi character. Someone owed Rodriguez a favour and I’m glad it wasn’t me.

Speaking of people who seem to owe him a favour, there’s a strange abundance of known faces in this flick. Apart from Banderas and the fleeting cameo by Hayek, you’ve got Johnny Depp playing his dubious CIA character like such a ham that you wonder when someone’s going to honey-glaze him and put him on the table for Christmas lunch. Also, you’ve got Willem Dafoe with a leathery tan playing some evil Mexican drug lord, Mickey Rourke playing another strange looking arsehole like he always seems to play now, Eva Mendes as an unbelievable (as in not at all believable) FBI agent, Cheech of Cheech and Chong fame, Latin ‘hearththrob’ Enrique Iglesias who makes his father look more human and cooler only in comparison, and probably a dozen other vaguely Hispanic-American actors whose names I don’t recall. Oh, and Ruben Blades playing a retired agent and Danny Trejo again playing the meanest looking motherfucker in cinema history. If you’ve ever seen him, you know who I mean.

All these people have practically nothing to do in the film of any merit. I understand that the actual shooting time of this film was ridiculously short, and that Rodriguez didn’t really have a script before starting, but none of that excuses the fact that there are too many characters and none of them have anything reasonable or entertaining to do for the vast majority of the movie. It shows, it really does. I understand how people can sometimes adapt scripts or change entire streams of thought midway through a production to either cope with unfortunate circumstance or to improve upon or incorporate someone’s ideas, but embarking on such an endeavour without a coherent script seems, well, foolhardy or at least arrogant. It doesn’t instil a lot of confidence in this reviewer, and nor does this movie warrant it.

And there are people that can do these kinds of chaotic films and make them work. Hack director Alex Cox used to be able to do it (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy, Straight to Hell), in that he made trash that looked like trash but they still managed to be highly entertaining. John Waters, every Hong Kong director who’s ever picked up a light meter and two prop hand guns, Peter Jackson before Tolkien propelled him to the first rank of directors, bunches of people used to know how to do all this with verve, balls / ovaries and style. 90% of horror film directors, Sam Raimi, I’m sure you can think of plenty of others. The difference was that as minuscule the budget, as messy as the shooting schedule was, they still had some kind of story attached for an audience to be entertained, production values be damned.

You could look at this whole production here as solely an experiment in what Rodriguez wants you to think is guerrilla filmmaking. Yeah, give me multiple millions of dollars and I’ll see what I can do too. Still, it probably would have resulted in a better film if he’d just made what I believe they call in the industry ‘amateur gonzo porn’. It would have made more sense and had a more meaningful storyline.

A lot of people, including myself, like to think of Johnny Depp as a wonderful actor who can improve even mediocre films with his presence. His role choices are mostly unusual, and with the exception of Pirates of the Caribbean he’s generally avoided standard big budget Hollywood stuff. So if someone were to say that he’s in this film as one of the multitude of characters, you’d be forgiven for thinking at least he would be worth watching. You’d be wrong. Dead wrong. Blindingly, eyeball-rupturingly wrong.

He is as bad as anyone else in the movie, if not worse. He spends much of his screen time chewing on stupid dialogue, killing people for no discernible reason, and then inexplicably becomes some deranged blind action hero. It’s not funny, Rodriguez, in fact it was pretty dumb. I have no qualms revealing that Depp’s character Sands has both of his eyes gouged out of his head towards the end of the film. You’d think that this would put a crimp in his ability to socialise, shoot people, or live, even. Instead he turns into a blind superhero, which makes no sense on any level apart from Rodriguez thinking it would be ‘cool’, and thus doing it. Like all of the characters he has no dimensions, so it matters not what happens to him or what he does. Just like every other character in the ‘movie’ staggering around in the dark.

The plot, such as it is, is insane. It stumbles around like a grandparent with advanced Alzheimer’s, muttering quietly to itself occasionally, at other times screaming at the top of its lungs and shitting itself in front of the audience. By the time the movie ended I felt genuinely grateful.

I only got one laugh or moment of enjoyment out of the whole fiasco. For whatever reason, towards the story’s end, El Mariachi has to save the President of Mexico. After people try to kill El Presidente, El Mariachi strides in to save the day. El Presidente asks the Mariachi and his friends ‘Who are you?”

Antonio Banderas responds ‘Sons of Mexico, Sir!’

El Presidente, reassured by this show of patriotism, is relieved and walks off with the gunmen. Around him the Mexican military, some government guys, some drug lord’s henchmen, some random people off the street and probably the Canadian circus performers from Cirque de Soliel all start having a gun fight and blowing up the palace. You may ask yourself ‘What the hell is going on here?’, and you’d be right to ask such a question. What the hell, Rodriguez, what the hell indeed.

It’s probably the only patriotic Mexican film you’ll see in your lifetime. Who’d have thought that such a market existed, er, outside of Mexico and the south-eastern States of the United variety.

This isn’t a shitfest improved by drink, by the leaves of the wacky tobaccy kind, or probably even raw opium. It is a bad film that is nothing more than a bad film.

I’m tempted to start a petition that urges the blinding and cutting off of Robert Rodriguez’s hands to prevent him from working again, but somehow I don’t think that will stop him. But then again it could improve his storytelling abilities, so you never know.

4 times Johnny Depp should rethink his choices before accepting film roles whilst stratospherically high out of 10

‘Are you a Mexi-can, or a Mexi-can’t?’ – Agent Sands, Once Upon a Time in Mexico.