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With: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Enrique Iglesias, Marco Leonardi, Cheech Marin, Rubén Blades, Willem Dafoe
Written by: Robert Rodriguez
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, and for language
Language: Spanish, English with English subtitles
Running Time: 102
Date: 08/27/2003
IMDB

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Gulps of 'Mexico'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Ten years ago, Robert Rodriguez began his "Mariachi" trilogy with the ultra-low budget El Mariachi, an astonishing debut of slick simplicity and youthful enthusiasm.

Today it finishes with Once Upon a Time in Mexico, a complicated, schizophrenic film with dull spots and bright spots; places that are too fast and others too slow. It's as if after eight films of wearing multiple hats -- he writes, directs, produces, edits, scores, runs the camera and supervises the sets, sound and visual effects -- Rodriguez finally went a little punch-drunk.

As a result, one of the greatest of action directors finally succumbed to Hollywood thinking and sped up his otherwise smoothly balanced fights and shoot-outs. Now they whiz by so fast and with such jarring cuts that they look like a multicolored blender.

But at the same time, Once Upon a Time in Mexico moves with uncanny cool; it has a strange lukewarm energy that most Hollywood action films lack.

Most of this rests on Johnny Depp, with his second picture-saving performance of the year. Depp plays CIA agent Sands, who is so inherently un-cool with his offensively unfunny t-shirts and his stale dialogue that he comes full circle into cool again. In one scene, he does a dead-on Marlon Brando impersonation for no discernable reason but to entertain us.

Sands hires El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas, back from Desperado), to help with a complex coup-de-tat involving an evil drug cartel lord (Willem DaFoe), an evil general (Gerardo Vigil) and the country's good and beloved El Presidente (Pedro Armendariz). It's easy to get confused as to who is supposed to kill whom, but all you have to do is sit back and remember who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.

Other good guys include Jorge (Ruben Blades), a retired FBI man whom Sands goads into action. In addition, the Mariachi hires two other guitar-playing gunmen, played by Enrique Iglesias and Marco Leonardi.

Bad guys include hired lackey Cucuy (Danny Trejo) and sleazy one-eyed informer Belini (Cheech Marin).

And the ambiguous characters include Billy Chambers (Mickey Rourke), an American trapped into working for the cartel, and Ajedrez (Eva Mendes) a sexy Mexican cop. So as not to prolong the confusion, both characters quickly announce their allegiance.

Finally, Salma Hayek appears in flashback as a super-bad fighting sex goddess with knives hidden in her garter belts. With a single vicious blow, she lashes out for the title of sexiest woman alive. She marries the Mariachi, but disaster strikes, which explains why he spends so much time brooding.

Rodriguez clearly has a ball with this huge, impressive list of actors, especially Depp and Rourke, who is enjoying every minute of his new comeback. And Blades has one of his best roles as the slightly indecisive FBI agent trying to look authoritative; in one nice moment, in order to gain access to a hospital, he pins a doctor's nametag on his shirt upside down.

The director's use of sun-baked widescreen bursting with Mexico's native reds and greens is gorgeous, but his cutting gets too far out of hand; it moves faster than the actors do.

Now that Rodriguez has completed his two trilogies -- this and Spy Kids -- he should maybe slow down and let others do some of the work for him. If he keeps going at this rate, he'll be remembered more for the positive changes he's made in the movie industry (reinventing low-budget filmmaking, hiring Hispanic casts and crews) than for the films themselves.

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