Robert Rodriguez is the very definition of a ‘busy bee’ considering all the shit he seems to have on his plate all the time.
Since he exploded onto the indie scene with his homemade action/thriller El Mariachi and it’s far more polished sequel, the utterly stupendous Desperado, Rodriguez got to work doing whatever he wanted to do, whenever he wanted to do it which led to him having numerous franchises on the go while he continued on his quest to find more ways to make a movie even easier in order to wear more caps on a film set than a fucking hat rack. By 2003, in the midst of his Spy Kids franchise, he managed to release the third part of his Mariachi starring Mexico Trilogy in which he directed, wrote, produced, shot, edited and even provided music (given half the chance I bet he’d make sandwiches for the crew too) for Once Upon A Time In Mexico – but an unpopular question had to be asked: can absorbing so many jobs on set actually be detrimental to a movie, even one about a guy with a guitar case full of guns?
The mysterious El Mariachi has allowed himself to fall into myth and now spends a quiet and peaceful existence making guitars instead of blowing drug dealers eighteen feet through the air with highly concentrated shotgun blasts – this is because he is mourning the death of his wife Carolina and their daughter together at the hands of the jealous General Marquez. Gaining revenge on the corrupt soldier by giving him one of those shotgun blasts I mentioned earlier, the Mariachi (now dubbed El) gave up his life of death and vengeance – or at least he did until he’s approached by slimy CIA agent Sands to sort of prevent a coup de’tat that’s due to go down during the Mexican Day Of The Dead.
It seems Marquez isn’t actually dead and that worse yet, he’s been recruited by the frankly terrifying drug baron Barillo to assassinate the President Of Mexico and so Sands wants El to kill his nemesis – but not save the President… with me so far?
While all this is going on, Sands’ plan also manages to rope in a retired FBI agent, a one-eyed informant, the president’s aide, a washed up american criminal and an AFN operative who all manage to find themselves lost in the tangled jumble of plans and counter-plans who usually end up with shitty results at the end of a bullet.
As alliances shift like the tides and Sands plans fall apart like so much cheap toilet paper, it’s down to the vengeful El to restore order with a shitload of bullets and some stylish hair flicks to restore order to the riot torn streets of Culiacán by killing as many cartel men he can find.
Rodriguez has obviously based this third Chapter of his Mexico Trilogy on the sprawling epics and expansive casts of a Sergio Leone movie and infuses his grungy, neo-western with as many working parts he possibly can to keep the plot similarly throwaway and yet fairly complex. However, this raises a couple of issues, with the first being that Antonio Banderas’ El Mariachi feels like he’s no longer the focus point of his own movie – now this ordinarily wouldn’t be an issue, after all numerous westerns and western-style movies deliberately have their heroes blindly wander into someone else’s story (everyone from Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name to Mad freakin’ Max has played second fiddle to grand effect) but the film focuses so much on Johnny Depp’s shitheel of a CIA agent, that Banderas weirdly feels inessential despite his many action scenes and flashbacks.
To be fair, Rodriguez’s obvious love for the duplicitous Agent Sands is well founded; Depp is obviously having a ball playing this amusingly amoral character who’s dedication to keeping balance in Mexico goes as far as shooting a chef who makes too good a version of his favorite meal. Essentially an amassed collection of exaggerated quirks (long before Depp made it his sole stock and trade), he doesn’t so much steal the film but has it totally handed to him wholesale by the director who gives him virtually all the best scenes and lines (“Are you a Mexican, or a Mexican’t?”) including his habit of wearing a fake arm when meeting informants so he has a hand free to secretly keep a gun on them at all times and an extended scene where a blinded Sands has to engage in a shoot out using only sound. If I’m being harsh, Depps the only true reason to watch the film and as a massive fan of what Rodriguez and Banderas did together in Desperado, I couldn’t help but be pretty disappointed.
In the other hand, it certainly isn’t dull – it doesn’t have any time to be – as the movie rushes through it’s hugely convoluted plot in barely an hour and a half which means anyone who isn’t Depp of Banderas has to jog to keep up and make themselves stand out.
Some make it – Willem Defoe’s cartel leader is appropriately evil and Rubén Blades retired Fed probably has the most affecting plot thread – while others sink without a trace – Eva Mendes barely makes a ripple and Enrique Iglesias doesn’t even make an impact while wielding a flame throwing guitar case – but the furiously multi-tasking director leaves no breathing space whatsoever in the film’s chaotic mad dash and even the script was apparently written in six days.
Even the action sequences fall victim to Rodriguez’s hyperactivity as they’re cut at such a relentless pace it’s tough to actually get a handle on what’s actually going on and often feels like trying to follow a round of paintball lit by heavy strobe lighting while trying to come down from some dodgy speed and the overall feeling is more frustration than elation.
After such a strong start – Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, The Faculty and even the first Spy Kids are all firm favorites of mine – this seemed to be the beginning of Rodriguez’s frequently annoying habit of banging out franchises of varying quality just because he can – to date he technically has at least five that he’s directly responsible for helming himself: The Mexico Trilogy, Spy Kids, Sin City, Machete and the two films featuring Shark Boy and Lava Girl (six if Alita: Battle Angel ever gets a sequel!) and while I would never begrudge the man the freedom to do whatever he wants, I would personally prefer it if was more in the realms of his earlier stuff than him switching between kids movies and grind house spoofs…
Not bad, but aggressively not great either, Once Upon A Time In Mexico oddly suffers from too much enthusiasm and is one of those rare movies where you could comfortably add ten or fifteen minutes to make things play better.
El Mariachi can still carry a tune, but it’s just not as catchy as it used to be…