Once Upon a Time in Mexico
“They call him El. As in the.” That’s the sort of solemnly funny line you might hear in a Sergio Leone western, and writer-director Robert Rodriguez has explicitly patterned his Mariachi trilogy — El Mariachi (1992), Desperado (1995), and now Once Upon a Time in Mexico — on Leone’s groundbreaking movies. Rodriguez isn’t out to break ground, though; he’s content to throw a party on it. It’s somewhat funny that after eleven years and ten movies, Rodriguez is still working the same hyperkinetic, B-movie side of the street; he aims low and hits, but he hits with style and grace. What’s more, he gives us a final chapter without any gravitas whatsoever — it’s as fast and unpretentious as the $7,000 El Mariachi was, and at times you even forget that El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) is in it.
Like Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy, Rodriguez’s three Mariachi movies share a lead character but not much else; it’s as if God hit the restart button and gave the hero a slightly different backstory. In short, you can enjoy Once Upon a Time in Mexico without having seen the other two. (The other two are self-contained, too; I think Rodriguez, and Leone before him, did that by design so that people could watch them in any order and not get lost.) These movies unfold in their own sandy, ornery universe, where firearms perform a kind of propulsive magic. Defying the laws of physics, men are hit with bullets and fly backwards well past any credible theory of momentum. There’s no pain in Rodriguez’s violence — he turns it into athletic, action-figure fantasy.
This time, El Mariachi is hired by a shady CIA agent (Johnny Depp) to kill a drug lord (Willem Dafoe) who’s out to kill the president of Mexico. There you have it: the good (Banderas), the bad (Depp), and the ugly (Dafoe). Depp’s performance here, as a morally neutral and ruthless agent who loves disguises, is consistent with the work he’s been doing lately, in Pirates of the Caribbean and others. Depp’s character has a false third arm he uses for no particular reason, and he has a thing about trying the pork dish in every dive in Mexico. In Depp’s hands, this unpredictable “law enforcer” becomes an eccentric who, we feel, joined the CIA solely to broaden his experience of weirdness. He’s certainly the hippest presence to adorn a Rodriguez film since George Clooney commandeered a Winnebago in From Dusk till Dawn.
Rodriguez indulges in an overabundance of plot, with characters double-crossing each other in what seems like every scene. He brings in Eva Mendes as a questionable cop and Mickey Rourke, looking like a failed wax sculpture of himself, as Dafoe’s conflicted American goon. We get flashbacks reuniting Banderas with Salma Hayek, who shows a previously unacknowledged flair with throwing knives; the pair undergo a setpiece worthy of vintage Spielberg, in which they’re chained together by the wrists and have to negotiate a five-story building down to the street to escape assassins. Ex-con Danny Trejo, he of the asphalt face, is back in Rodriguez World as a grim killer who gets that “El” line.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico couldn’t be more lightweight, but heaviness was never the point or the promise of these movies. For a grand total of $37,007,000 — about a quarter of what it costs to make one typical Hollywood action film that isn’t a quarter as fun as this one — Rodriguez has made an entire trilogy of inventive, restlessly entertaining action flicks. (He must also be the first director to release two trilogy-enders that opened at #1 at the box-office in the same summer — Spy Kids 3D being the other.) This happily productive filmmaker works out of his own private digital Xanadu, and does as much of it himself as he can get away with — editing, cinematography, music, and probably waxing Salma Hayek’s post-Frida eyebrows, too. Rodriguez has yet to make anything remotely artistic, but he also has yet to make anything remotely boring.