Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2004) Movie Review

Billed as the final installment in writer/director Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi trilogy, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” takes guitar-slinging, gun-toting, drug dealer-killing musician El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) back to Mexico, where he has been hiding in a small town whittling away his time by making guitars for the locals. El, as he’s called, grudgingly comes out of retirement when CIA agent Sands (Johnny Depp) comes calling, making an offer El can’t possibly refuse. The job: allow the Mexican president to be assassinated, and then kill the assassin. The assassin happens to be a rogue General name Marquez (Gerardo Vigil), who is also responsible for killing El’s wife Carolina (Salma Hayek) and their daughter.

With vengeance on his mind, El recruits two mariachi buddies, Latin singer Enrique Iglesias and liquor store patron Marco Leonardi to help out. As the timetable for the proposed assassination and counter-assassination approaches, it becomes obvious Sands is playing a game that involves drug cartel kingpin Barillo (Willem Dafoe). Somewhere along the line, a retired FBI agent (Ruben Blades) enters the picture, as does Barillo’s right-hand man played by Mickey Rourke (“Get Carter”) as a fugitive who hates having to live in Mexico. And what exactly does government agent Eva Mendes (“Out of Time”) have to do with all of this nonsensical nonsense?

Unfortunately for “Mexico”, the phrase “nonsensical nonsense” is very much appropriate. As written by Rodriguez, who serves as writer, director, cinematographer, editor, caterer, chauffeur, make-up person, and probably his own assistant and his assistant’s assistant, the script is a mish mash of wacky ideas tossed against a wall, with every lame brain plot twist, turns, and double twists that Rodriguez could think of jammed into the script. To say that “Mexico” was built from a foundation of poor writing, weak narrative, and downright criminal neglect of common sense logic is an understatement. What exactly is Sands’ reason for engineering a coup of the Mexican government again? Oh wait, it doesn’t matter. Nevermind.

Fans of Rodriguez have always known that their idol was not a good writer. To be perfectly honest, if not for the deserving legend surrounding Rodriguez’s feature film, the oft-mention “El Mariachi”, I would bet good money Rodriguez would be considered nothing more than a Hollywood hack. He’s the type of director who gets things done — he brings the movie under budget and well ahead of schedule, two abilities that makes him every producer’s dream. The trick, then, is to not let Rodriguez write his own movies. As per example, take “From Dusk Till Dawn”, arguably his most well written piece, and Quentin Tarantino wrote it!

But where he lacks in writing skills and maturity as a director, Rodriguez excels in keeping the audience busy. Busy with unpredictable visuals, wacky comedy, and over-the-top kinetic violence that he slings around the screen with wild abandon. “Mexico” never goes for more than a few minutes without something blowing up, someone getting shot and flying backwards for about 50 yards through the air, or the type of zany editing Rodriguez is most known for. Storytelling is abysmal, giving in to nonsensical backstabbing and plotting that only makes sense in Rodriguez’s mind — if that. I can only imagine what wackiness Rodriguez left on the cutting room floor.

Although she gets second billing, Salma Hayek (“Frida”) is not a major character in the film. Her Carolina only appears in flashbacks for a total of 5 minutes or so. The fact that the film bills her so highly is probably due more to her rising stardom than her screen minutes. Then again, the movie’s trailer also emphasizes co-star Johnny Depp as the (dare I say that word again?) wacky homicidal CIA agent who thinks he’s got all the sides covered, at least until things come unglue real fast. No doubt the studios were playing off Depp’s affable turn as a pirate in the insanely popular “Pirates of the Caribbean”. His character here is equally comedic, but perhaps a bit more in control. But not that much more in control.

The most disappointing thing about “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” is how little presence star Antonio Banderas has. Although it might not be Rodriguez’s fault, because Banderas (“The Mask of Zorro”) has never really been an exciting actor to me. The guy just doesn’t seem to have much energy, and as a result he just looks bored all the time, no matter the role. Every now and then one gets the feeling Rodriguez has inserted so many characters than necessary in an attempt to make the film feel more epic than it is, or is capable of being. At 100 minutes, “Mexico” might just be the longest movie he’s ever written!

For stylish and cartoonish violence, “Mexico” delivers in spades. This is what would happen if you gave an 18-year old who has been making super-8 shorts with his buddies since he was 10 a large sum of money and tell him to go make you a movie. The whole thing isn’t much to look at from a storytelling perspective, but anyone who knows Rodriguez could hardly complain.

The movie’s final third act involves a siege of the royal palace by Marquez and about, oh, 20 or 30 of his men. Who knew the Mexican government was so easy to overthrow? Apparently all it takes is some guys with a bazooka and some jeeps. Now that’s what I call weak homeland security!

Robert Rodriguez (director) / Robert Rodriguez (screenplay)
CAST: Gerardo Vigil …. Marquez
Antonio Banderas …. El Mariachi
Salma Hayek …. Carolina
Johnny Depp …. Sands
Mickey Rourke …. Billy
Eva Mendes …. Ajedrez
Danny Trejo …. Cucuy
Enrique Iglesias …. Lorenzo

Buy Once Upon a Time in Mexico on DVD