Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, January 21, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2003) Part Two

10. Once Upon a Time in Mexico

You can blame Quentin Tarantino for this one. Or, at least, that's how I remember it being told in the pages of a film magazine I no longer recall the name of. When production started on “Desperado,” Robert Rodriguez figured that would be the end of it, that El Mariachi's story would conclude there. Supposedly, while filming his bit part, Tarantino suggested to Rodriguez that this series was his equivalent to Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy. That he needed to make one more movie with these characters, that it needed to be epic, and that it needed to be called “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” Rodriguez apparently took Tarantino's suggestion very seriously. Filmed before the second and third “Spy Kids” movies but released afterwards, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” would roll across theater screens in 2003.

In Mexico, the newly elected President has declared war on the drug cartels. Armando Barillo, the leader of the Barillo cartel, can not let this happen. He funds a planned coup lead by General Marquez, a rogue man from the Mexican military. CIA agent Sheldon Sands, on behalf of the US government, wants to make sure that the President is killed but Marquez' coup doesn't succeed either. To insure this happens, he hires El Mariachi, who has a personal grudge against Marquez. Sands is playing all sides of the conflict. He convinces Jorge Ramirez, a former FBI agent who also has a grudge against Barillo, to track the drug lord. He has a relationship with Ajedrez, a Federale agent with eyes on Barillo's cash. However, Sands' plans soon go awry right before the attempted coup, before Mexico descends into a battle zone.

Robert Rodriguez obviously intended “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” to be an epic. However, the director seems to have confused “epic” with “convoluted.” This was the main criticism directed at the film when it was new. No doubt, “Once upon a Time in Mexico” is overstuffed. There's at least three or four main storylines to follow, a main cast of over a dozen characters. The film is constantly juggling these various stories. If the viewer doesn't keep up, they are likely to be left behind. Rodriguez does not bring all of these stories to a satisfying end nor properly balance them.

A big mistake “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” potentially makes is reducing El Mariachi, ostensibly the character fans of this trilogy are most invested in, to practically a supporting character. Antonio Banderas is largely silent throughout the film. Traumatized by the loss of his loved ones, he quietly broods for most of the run time. For about half of the story, he's pushed around by the whims of other characters. Banderas does an excellent job of conveying that level of loss and pain, though he still smolders in a few key scenes. Yet making El Marichi but one player in a large game is disappointing.

Something else that may be disappointing about “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” if you enjoyed the trailers and posters, is that Salma Hayek's role is even smaller. In fact, Carolina is dead by the time the story begins. Hayek gets a few plum appearances in flashbacks but that's about it. She has even less dialogue than Banderas. There's a lot that can be written about the way the film kills off its principal female character, and her daughter too, in order to provide its male protagonist with a motivation. More than anything else, it's disappointing that Hayek's tenure as an action hero, hugely compelling in the few scene she has, is cut so short.

El Mariachi, or El as he's called throughout most of the film, is not the actual protagonist of the film. Instead, Agent Sands is who drives most of the story. The part allows Johnny Depp, who hadn't yet become a total caricature, a chance to indulge his eccentricities. Sands has plenty of quirks. He insists on eating pulled pork in every restaurant in Mexico. He wears gaudy T-shirts with trashy messages on them. He dresses up in various outfits, putting on ridiculous voices. He uses a false arm in several scenes, in order to get the drop on people. The character is an agent of American imperialism, responsible for most of the death that follows, and the movie treats him like a puckish anti-hero. But Depp's hamminess is certainly entertaining. He's never boring to watch and makes a lot of “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” pretty damn interesting.

If “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” was just about El, Sands, and the attempted coup, its story would probably be fairly easy to follow. Instead, Rodriguez has to gum up the gears by throwing in yet more stories. Among the least essential subplot is probably the story of Jorge Ramirez. It's not the fault of Ruben Blades, who does fine in the role. He brings the weight of someone who has suffered some tragedies to the part. He also doesn't make the character's guilt ponderous or overdone. Yet his role in the plot is ultimately fairly negligible. What he does add to the proceedings could have easily been handled by something one else, that wouldn't have necessitated adding an entire new thread to the film.

With “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” Rodriguez creates probably the biggest action movie he's ever made. In the last act, it practically becomes a war movie. There's bazookas, machine guns, massive explosions, and a car chase. As you'd expect, Rodriguez' editing is as frenetic as always. Yet he goes perhaps too far this time. There are moments where “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” is cut too quickly. Sometimes, people and objects seem to leap forward in time suddenly. Other times, the camera appears to shake wildly, making the action scenes unnecessarily difficult to follow. That motorcycle/car chase is probably the worst offender in that regard. Rodriguez' work here approaches Michael Bay levels of incoherence, which is a shame.

Yet the director still knows how to throw together some creative mayhem. El Mariachi continues to toss goons through the air with his hand cannon, stuntmen tossed around by CGI'd out cords. A shoot-out in a church doesn't top anything in “Desperado” but is pretty damn cool. That climatic last act features guitar cases doubling as a flamethrower and a remote control bomb. In a likely John Woo homage, El rides a guitar case down the stairs, blasting away at enemies. In turn, dead bodies slid down banisters. Though that car chase borders on incoherent, it does feature a really awesome scene of Banderas leaping from a motorcycle, landing in a pink Cadillac, and driving off without missing a beat. Sometimes, the violence borders on the ridiculous – CGI exploding kneecaps? – but it's effective for what it is.

Yet the best action scene in “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” occurs fairly early on. During one of El's flashbacks, we see him and Carolina in happier times. This sets up an amazingly inventive set piece. Connected by a chain, the two make a quick escape down the outside of a building. The two swing back and forth, the camera following them smoothly. All the while they dodge bullets from across the street. After an awesome shot of an air conditioner falling towards the camera, a bus is thrown into the mix. Naturally, the entire sequence concludes with a huge explosion. It's maybe the best action sequence Rodriguez has directed in his entire career.

Considering its sprawling story, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico's” supporting cast is massive. There's a few notable names floating around. Mickey Rourke, on the way to his comeback, appears as the remorseful henchman of Barillo. Rourke brings one of his dogs along too, though doesn't have quite enough room to actually develop the character much. Willen DaFoe, in what has to be a weird homage to “Touch of Evil,” plays a Mexican crime lord. DaFoe happily hams it up at the very least. Eva Mendes brings a fitting amount of sensuality to a part that amounts to an evil seductress. Marco Lenardi is colorful as the alcoholic partner of El. Enrique Iglesias, as the second partner, has some of that Banderasian smolder but looks ridiculous holding a gun. Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin show up too, naturally.

Robert Rodriguez has always made his Mexican heritage a proud part of his cinema, putting Latino actors in prominent roles and making his culture parts of his stories. “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” is a full-blown love letter to his background. Rodriguez makes the streets and hills, vacation homes and poor housing, part of the films' DNA. The hazy tropical heat of Mexico informs the color palette and feel of the entire film. When all out war explodes in the last act, Rodriguez proudly portrays the people of Mexico fighting back against the drug cartels, trying to protect and maintain the man who wants a more peaceful nation. Most subversively, he portrays an American agent as the villain behind it all, exploiting Mexico for the U.S.'s greed and power.  The final shot is Banderas kissing the Mexican colors as he walks off into the sunset, cementing the huge affection the filmmaker has for this place.

The first time I saw “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” like most critics, I didn't like it. I found it needlessly hard to follow, excessive, and ultimately a disappointing conclusion to the Mexico Trilogy. And it is all of these things. Yet there's definitely a case to be made for style over substance. “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” has style in spades. Though deeply flawed, if you just let this rambling mess wash over you, there's plenty of fun to be had here. Despite this being the intended grand finale, Rodriguez has occasionally hinted at wanting to do another El Mariachi movie eventually, once Banderas is older. (If this is his “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” I suppose that would be his “Unforgiven?”) I have no idea if that movie will ever get made, and if it'll be any good when it is made, but, for now, this conclusion is satisfying, if hopelessly ovestuffed. [Grade: B]

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