Posts Tagged ‘Johnny Depp’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 21st August 2003:

Ah, the buccaneering life! Is there anything more likely to set the heart a-quivering and the bladder a-quaking? A life on the ocean wave, regular plunder, and such interesting hats. Is it any surprise that one of my favourite daydreams involves me mustering my seamen and grabbing some booty? Well, anyway, for all the charm of being a corsair, for the last twenty or thirty years making a movie on this theme has been a surefire way of giving away all your money. This depressing trend has finally been reversed by Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, based on the Disney theme park ride of the same name. (Hopefully the success of this film means we can expect M Night Shymalan’s Little Dipper – based on the Blackpool Pleasure Beach ride – in the not too distant future.)

A reassuringly old-fashioned swashbuckler, Pirates kicks off by introducing the inhabitants of the Caribbean outpost of Port Royal, primarily the overlooked blacksmith’s apprentice Will (Elven poster-boy Orlando Bloom) and the girl he has a bit of a thing for, governor’s daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley, whom you may recall as a striker in Bend It Like Beckham or one of the Amidalettes in Phantom Menace). Inevitably, Elizabeth’s father is not too keen on Will wooing her and is trying to set her up with a snooty English naval officer. Anyway, Elizabeth falls in the sea (quite why this happens isn’t really gone into), which has an odd effect on her stylish Goth medallion, nicked from Will some years earlier while rescuing him from a shipwreck. Fortunately she is rescued by passing pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (an almost indescribably bizarre performance from Johnny Depp), who’s in town trying to steal himself a ship. Unfortunately the medallion attracts the scurvy pirate swabs of Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), who have their own quite unusual reasons for wanting to get their hands on the medallion and its owner…

Well, this is a big, lavish, undeniably spectacular blockbuster, and you’d have to be a tiny bit shrivelled up inside not to find it at least a little agreeable. It has people walking the plank, it has a full-on sea battle between two sets of pirates, it has some very distinguished sword-fighting, and the special effects aren’t bad either (although not up to the standard of the classic Ray Harryhausen sequences they’re clearly a homage to). But these are not what make the film such fun.

What brings the film to life is Johnny Depp’s extraordinary turn as Captain Jack Sparrow, a staggering, swaggering, addle-brained rogue who comes across as a strange hybrid of Gypsy fortune-teller and Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones. He really, really earns his fee, investing every line and movement with a knowingly peculiar twist of some kind, and he’s by far the funniest lead character in a blockbuster for many years – big kudos to Depp for pulling it off, and much respect to the producers for letting him try in the first place. Best of all, it allows the rest of the film to engage in some very off-beat humour without it seeming out of place, and a supporting cast containing many familiar faces from British sitcoms (Mackenzie Crook, Kevin McNally, Jack Davenport) is ideally suited to this kind of material.

And to be honest this gives Pirates a mad energy and distinctiveness it sorely needs. This is a good script, and it’s handsomely mounted, but Verbinski’s direction is rather bland and uninspired (a few CGI shots notwithstanding). With a visionary like Terry Gilliam at the helm this could have been a hilarious, chilling classic – as it is, it’s just a fun night out, a bit overlong, with romantic leads most notable for their good looks and rarely any sense of darkness or danger. Still, a distinctly superior adventure, and you’re never in any doubt as to whom to thank for it.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 19th 2002: 

Long-time, long-suffering readers may recall that when this column was younger and still had some novelty value, we occasionally peered back into the mists of time for a look at the great, and not so great, films of years gone by. Well, I decided to knock this section of the column on the head in the end as while a review of a film that came out a fortnight ago has some spurious claim to relevance, the same cannot be said for an in-depth critique of a thirty-year-old opus about a rubber dinosaur. However, where do art-house films, wending their slow and convoluted routes around the country over a period of many months fit into this equation? Well, they may not be brand-spanking new, but they’re new in my local cinema at least, which makes them fair game in my book. Which brings us to Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s Lost in La Mancha.

Total masochists and members of the editorial team may recall last January’s review of 2001, wherein I listed the films which I was particularly looking forward to this year: Attack of the Clones, From Hell, Matrix Reloaded and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Attentive masochists will also have noticed that most of these films turned out to not be very good, or indeed finished yet. But I think I was truly alone in looking forward to the release of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, as this film was not only not finished, it had in fact been pretty much abandoned less than a fortnight into production.

Lost in La Mancha is a documentary about what went wrong. Originally intended as a DVD extra it’s been released in an attempt to drum up interest in the film, and it’s a fascinating piece of work. That this is so is mainly because making the film was a long-cherished dream of its director, one Terence Vance Gilliam, and Gilliam is always good value no matter which side of the camera he’s on.

Quixote and Gilliam seem made for each other – Gilliam’s classic 80s movies all deal with the clash between dreams and reality, the same theme as Cervantes’ classic novel. And the same theme permeates this documentary, as Gilliam’s dream of making his masterpiece slowly falls apart in the face of real-world difficulties. To begin with, all seems well, as Gilliam arrives in Spain to oversee pre-production, and the glimpses of his vision we see are truly tantalising: rampaging giants, an army of life-size puppet soldiers, and more. Gilliam’s enthusiasm is infectious and all-consuming, the test footage of the giants (low-angle shots of very obese, very ugly Spaniards) hilarious. But everyone on the project says repeatedly, and worriedly, how ambitious it is and how little room for manoeuvre there is in the schedule. As shooting approaches several of the lead actors have yet to show up for costume fittings and screen tests (the impressive cast includes Johnny Depp, Jean Rochefort, Vanessa Paradis, Bill Paterson and Christopher Eccleston). The production’s one and only sound stage has the acoustics of an oil drum.

And as shooting begins in earnest, things go only from bad to worse: the main location turns out to be next door to an active NATO bombing range. The extras have had no rehearsal. On day two the main film unit is washed away in a thunderstorm, in a sequence both funny and heartbreaking. The key image of the film becomes Gilliam storming around the shoot in a variety of eccentric hats shouting ‘We’re f**ked!’. Things go from worse to disastrous as the actor playing Quixote himself, French veteran Jean Rochefort – who learned English specifically for this film – is diagnosed with a double-herniated disc which effectively stops him from participating. Concerned investors and completion guarantors begin to circle the production like vultures…

As a behind-the-scenes look at the film industry Lost in La Mancha is not especially innovative: only as a glimpse at a film that never was (or at least, hasn’t been yet) is it of real interest. But there are so many thematic parallels between the story of Quixote the character, and the story of Quixote the film, that it’s almost spooky. Gilliam emerges as a dogged, almost eternally cheerful character – his refusal to accept the worst is perhaps understandable given that every film he’s ever made has involved a battle of some kind of other (he did, after all, develop stress-related hysterical paralysis during post-production on Brazil). But on the other hand, if this wasn’t a Gilliam project it’s doubtful things would have gone quite so badly wrong – First AD Phil Patterson (who comes across as Sancho Panza to Gilliam’s Quixote) admits the total chaos reigning as shooting approaches would normally make him deeply nervous – but this is a Gilliam project, after all, and everyone knows this is how Gilliam operates…

If I had to make a criticism of Lost in La Mancha, it’d be that the documentary style is a little lacking in narrative structure – the story of the production fizzles out a bit at the end. Admittedly, the production itself fizzles out, but the documentary doesn’t stress the final dissolution strongly enough. The rest of the time this is a fascinating, amusing, tantalising piece of work. I would perhaps hesitate to recommend it to anyone who wasn’t a Terry Gilliam fan or a film industry geek, but for that audience at least it’s a virtual must-see.

And the story may yet have a happy ending: the film closes with Gilliam embarking on yet another attempt to make his movie, struggling to buy his script back off the insurers. Will he succeed or not? Will what looked to be a tremendous feat of imagination ever reach our screens? No-one knows, yet. And you thought Lord of the Rings ended on a cliff-hanger!

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 27th July 2006:

Hello again everyone, and with the fifth anniversary of this column’s first appearance soon upon us, not to mention another (hopefully temporary) cessation of service not far behind, I thought it would be appropriate to briefly look at the state of cinemas today. Yes, that’s cinemas the buildings, not cinema the art form. I remember the rush of disbelief, verging on awe, when the first multiplex opened in my hometown back in 1989. Ten screens! Ten of them! Five times as many as the existing cinema! Imagine the surprise! Imagine the possibilities! No film would ever struggle to get shown again! In this giant temple to the art of film, there would surely be a place for all styles, all genres – something for everyone! All tastes could be catered to at once!

Well, sort of. Last week my local ten-screen cinema was, on a Saturday afternoon, showing a grand total of four different films. It was just that Superman Returns and Pirates of the Caribbean were each on four screens simultaneously, with Over the Hedge and Just My Luck just about scraping a screen each. It’s almost as if the company was putting profit ahead of catering to varied tastes… oh, hush my cynical mouth!

I have actually been to see Superman and Pirates, cos they’re both my sort of film. The thing is that there are lots of other things which are my sort of film too, but they’re just not profitable enough to warrant multiplex-space these days. Anyway, less whinging and more reviewing: starting with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Oddly enough for a man these days best-known for superhero adaptations (this film and the first two X-pictures), Bryan Singer has cheerfully admitted he didn’t read comics as a boy and isn’t really that familiar with the characters. However he is a big fan of the classic Richard Donner Superman movie. This is very, very obvious to anyone who’s seen both Donner’s movie and Singer’s, because Superman Returns is much more interested in Superman the movie than Superman the character.

The plot is, to put it mildly, straightforward: Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to Earth after a five-year pilgrimage to the remains of his homeworld Krypton. But things have moved on in his absence. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a fiancée (James Marsden) and a toddler. The world has learned to cope without him. It’s enough to give the Man of Steel insecurity issues. But he need not fear, for his baldy nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey enjoying himself) has somewhat implausibly got out of jail and has embarked upon another deranged and cataclysmic real estate scam, which is bound to keep him occupied.

Well, there are many good things that can be said about Superman Returns. It’s a classy production which has clearly been a labour of love for many of those involved in its creation. The new Superman is cleverly cast and likeable, the new Luthor gives a witty performance, the special effects are eyecatching and it has a wonderful score. Unfortunately all these things could just as accurately have been said about the 1978 movie (and most of them probably were). It’s not just that this film doesn’t escape from the shadow of its predecessor, it doesn’t even want to.

This is a shame for all sorts of reasons. Brandon Routh does well in a very, very tough job, but any possibility of his performance not being endlessly compared to that of the late Christopher Reeve is removed by a script which even goes so far as to reprise some of the dialogue of the original film. There’s barely a gag, a beat or a plot twist that isn’t revisited here in some form or other and the tone and style is slavishly reproduced. This is quite a slow film with a lot of special effects sequences but very little action. Back in the 70s, the technology simply wasn’t there to put some of Superman’s more spectacular opponents up on the screen, but the recent Marvel movies have proven this is no longer the case. Bryan Singer’s choice to make this a more mature and stately movie isn’t necessarily wrong, but it does drain the film of a lot of the energy and fun of the comic books.

What’s actually new about Superman Returns is a bit of a mixed bag. For most of its duration, this is a light and almost whimsical movie, which makes the inclusion of some quite brutal violence all the more jarring. James Marsden gets more to do here as the sidekick of a sidekick than he did as leader of the X-Men in three movies combined (but that’s not really much to do with this film). The only central performance that falls down is Kate Bosworth’s, who doesn’t make much impression at all (Jonathan Ross memorably described an appearance by her on his chat show as being like trying to interview a piece of furniture). There is a major and rather startling plot twist which if nothing else strongly implies that either this movie must be in continuity with Superman II or that the writers haven’t read Larry Niven’s classic article Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex. There’s a brief bit near the end that seems inspired by one of the most famous Superman stories of the 1990s, but once again it doesn’t really go anywhere.

Superman has lasted nearly 70 years because the character can be reimagined and reinvented by every new generation of writers, artists and fans. Since the first Donner picture the mythos has effectively been reconstituted as a romantic comedy and a teenage rites-of-passage story, and that’s just on TV. A new Superman for the 21st century has a lot of potential themes to deal with, especially given the character’s status both as global policeman and American icon, and modern effects technology is capable of putting any comic panel up on screen. To make a movie so determinedly backwards-looking strikes me as a massive missed opportunity. This is well-made and entertaining, but it’s not a movie in its own right so much as the longest cover version in history.

Moving on, some good news: Captain Jack is back! But that’s enough about Torchwood. Sticking with the cinema, the unlikely alliance of Walt Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer brings us the appropriately bizarre spectacle of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, directed by Gore Verbinski. The startlingly humungous box-office this little flick has already racked up makes my opinion of it rather surplus to requirements, but looking back I see that’s never stopped me in the past. So…

It must be said this movie presumes heavily upon the viewer either having recently seen the original or possessing a detailed knowledge of it from a large number of not-so-recent viewings (this is a roundabout way of saying there isn’t a recap at the start). The titular receptacle is the possession of mollusc-headed sea-demon Davy Jones (no, not the guy from The Monkees), portrayed by Bill Nighy and a bucketload of CGI effects, and the rather complicated plot revolves around everyone wanting to get their hands on it for various reasons. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, giving what we can probably now safely describe as an iconic performance) wants it because he’s sort of sold his soul to Davy Jones and needs it to bargain with. Will Turner (Landy Bloom) wants it for reasons involving his undead father, whose fate was never quite explained in the first movie. Disgraced toff Norrington (Jack Davenport) wants it to help him regain his station in life. Keira Knightly wanders about the movie as Elizabeth Swann (presumably so named because she’s a bird with a long neck), being almost (but not quite) entirely decorative.

Yeah, I’m not doing a very good job with the synopsis, but then it is terribly complex and takes a long time to get going. (It’s nearly two hours into the movie before the three leads meet up.) Do not let this put you off, should you not have seen this movie, because this is a movie that can definitely be described as a rollicking adventure, with copious amounts of entertainment value. As before, its success is due to a combination of outrageous stunts and effects sequences, eye-catching fantasy and horror, and unexpectedly offbeat humour. Johnny Depp acts Bloom and Knightly off the screen as you’d expect – that’s if ‘acts’ is quite the right word for it — but Nighy is also good value, as usual, and the junior members of the cast do justice to the jokes. Practically everyone from the first movie comes back and gets something interesting to do, which is neat trick, while there is good work from newcomers Stellan Skarsgard, Naomie Harris, and Tom Hollander.

The success of the first film seems to have emboldened its creators because this one ups the ante in virtually every department. Bigger fights and effects! More grotesque fantasy-horror! Even zanier jokes! Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this is that the movie has bloated to a frankly unnecessary two-and-a-half hours in length. It’s never actually slow or dull throughout that time, but one gets a definite feeling that this is still too much of a good thing. It doesn’t help that this film doesn’t actually have a proper ending, stopping instead in mid-plot on a cliffhanger (okay, a pretty good one), setting up next year’s World’s End (which apparently has Chow Yun-Fat in it, Hong Kong fans). Also less than fully satisfying are the writers’ attempts to set the heroic trio at odds with each other — while they effectively underline what an unreliably amoral character Sparrow is, the attempt to create some emotional darkness and genuine character conflict feels a bit of an afterthought, surely to be resolved in the next movie. I would also have commented on how, for a franchise called Pirates of the Caribbean, very little in the way of actual piracy goes on — but very wisely, the writers have beaten me to it by putting a complaint to that effect in the mouth of bandana-loving thespian Kevin McNally. Hey ho…

Readers of long standing may recall that I wasn’t that impressed by Curse of the Black Pearl and I must confess that I didn’t have particularly high hopes for this latest installment. However, despite its faults, I thought this was a hugely entertaining movie, practically perfect popcorn fodder. Its obvious desire to match Lord of the Rings in scale and impact is a bit overambitious, but this is still a remarkably accomplished and witty movie, considering its origins as a theme park ride. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this one, but I am the next.

Well, this week both the man from Krypton and the buccaneers slumped back to a mere three screens apiece, allowing some lesser productions a look-in, and one of these was Geoffrey Sax’s Stormbreaker, a jolly romp of a kids’ film with an all-star cast of talented and much-loved actors and Jimmy Carr.

If James Bond and Harry Potter got together and had a baby… no, hang on, that’s just eurgh. If Ian Fleming and JK Rowling got together and… mmm, that’s nearly as bad. I suspect you’re getting the drift, anyway. Alex Pettyfer plays Alex Rider, an average London schoolboy (average if you’re willing to overlook the fact that he’s clearly about three years older than everyone else in his class). As an orphan, he lives with his uncle (Ewan MacGregor, briefly appearing) and au pair-stroke-housekeeper (Alicia Silverstone, not appearing briefly enough), but this fairly happy existence is shattered when his uncle dies. Alex learns the incredible truth – not only was his uncle a top British spy, but all those adventure holidays and other activities they did together were actually his uncle’s attempts to train him as his replacement!

(Since seeing this film I have wondered if all the things my uncle encouraged me to do when I was younger might have been for a similar reason. But as they mainly revolved around my drinking vast amounts of falling-down water and then lying to his girlfriend when she asked me where he was, I doubt it, unless he had me in mind for a job in the Royal household.)

This is actually quite good news for Alex, as previously he looked more likely to get an ASBO than a licence to kill. Anyway his new bosses (Sophie Okonedo and Bill Nighy, again) pack him off to Wales for survival training (insert your own joke here) and then send him to poke about in the business dealings of peculiar computer tycoon Darrius Sayle (Mickey Rourke, who appears to have had himself varnished and actually wears eyeshadow in most of his scenes). Needless to say Sayle is up to no good and intends to commit a ghastly revenge upon the British people for… well, that’d be telling.

I had vague misgivings about Stormbreaker on the way in, as it’s based on a book by Anthony Horowitz (the brain behind wretched 90s TV sci-fi cock-up Crime Traveller), directed by Geoffrey Sax (who also helmed the shocking American Doctor Who telemovie) and part-funded by the UK Film Council (responsible for a roll-call of terrible movies too grim and lengthy to recount here). Remarkably, however, the collaboration here is a very fruitful and enjoyable one. Unlike the other two films also covered this week, it doesn’t outstay its welcome and zips along very cheerfully with some impressive stunts and action throughout — though while Hong Kong legend Donnie Yen gets a credit as fight choreographer, the actual martial arts stuff isn’t particularly special. (Alicia Silverstone gets a hugely entertaining kung fu fight with Missi Pyle though.)

This is quite cleverly pitched so that, while the kids are enjoying all the teenage wish-fulfillment stuff, the adults can play spot the star cameo (choose from the likes of Andy Serkis, Stephen Fry, and Robbie Coltrane) or, more challengingly, spot the rip-off from the Bond franchise. (Some of these are quite obscure.) The adult cast join in with this sort of thing and the British contingent largely give entertainingly tongue-in-cheek performances. Bill Nighy’s twitchingly neurotic spymaster is particularly good fun. The Americans, on the other hand, just go roaringly over-the-top at all times. The tone of the film is a bit uneven as a result — at first it looks like this is going to have a bit of emotional darkness and reality to it, but in the end it’s not that far removed from a Spy Kids movie. I suppose that’s what you get for including a sequence with an animatronic jellyfish…

All in all, though, this is good fun throughout, provided you don’t pause to consider how insanely implausible it all is. With the proper Bond franchise apparently making one of its regular detours into more gritty and naturalistic territory, there’s a definite gap in the market for this sort of thing and Stormbreaker deserves to find a place amongst the bigger beasts of the summer.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 14th 2002:

When I was but a lad, it seemed there was a new Jack the Ripper themed film out every couple of years. Something seems to have changed in the intervening time as the last noteworthy Ripper movie I can think of was Time After Time, released over twenty years ago. Last, that is, if you don’t count From Hell, based on a graphic novel by Northampton’s resident genius, Alan Moore.

From Hell is marginally more historically accurate than some past stabs at this subject – which is to say that there are no appearances by HG Wells, Sherlock Holmes or Dr Jekyll. Set in London in 1888, it concerns a group of Whitechapel prostitutes (led by Heather Graham, but including amongst their number several well-known faces from British TV, even – I think – Nicole from those car adverts) whose already squalid lifestyle gets even worse as someone starts murdering them one by one and then horrifically mutilating the bodies. Scotland Yard put Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp) on the case. As well as a peeler, Abberline is a clairvoyant (this is less help than you’d expect), and a smackhead (this is a lot more help than you’d expect!). His investigations lead him to uncover a dark secret at the heart of the British establishment…

For all the intimations that this is to be a radical and original new take on the Ripper mythos, there’s really not very much new here at all. It’s the traditional take on the story, as a predatory toff terrorises vulnerable young harlots from the underclass. The ‘solution’ proposed by the script is over a quarter of a century old and has already been used as the basis of one pretty good film (1979’s Murder By Decree). But the story is told fairly solidly for the most part, with reliable supporting performances from the likes of Ian Richardson, David Schofield, Paul Rhys, and especially Robbie Coltrane and Ian Holm.

Most of the interesting material in From Hell is visual: it’s aesthetically lustrous, palpably brooding, with Victorian London designed and shot like something out of a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. Depp’s opium-provoked visions are convincingly hallucinatory and the film is always worth looking at. The Hughes even retain the almost self-parodic image of the Ripper as clad in a top hat and cape, and have a lot of fun deploying this icon as a silhouette, etc.

But ultimately, I was disappointed by From Hell. As a horror film it’s not very scary – and, caveat emptor, not very violent or gory either. Most of the really nasty stuff is implied, although there’s an impressive but gratuitous cameo by the Elephant Man in all his twisted glory. This lack of explicitness didn’t bother me at all, certainly nowhere near as much as the performances of the two leads. Depp is fine but for his Cockney accent – it’s not Mary Poppins time, thankfully, but it’s still much too EastEnders for a middle-class police detective. Heather Graham isn’t too bad as the ho with a heart of gold but it’s a stock character from start to finish and she’s obviously the only whore in Whitechapel with her own hairdresser and skin-care specialist. The romance between the two doesn’t ring true at all.

However, this in turn is eclipsed by a truly awful conclusion: an unconvincing plot-twist has been tacked on in an attempt to provide a bittersweet happy ending. To me it seemed patronising and quite possibly insulting to the genuine victims of the real Ripper murderer. Although, if we’re going to start down that route, perhaps we should question the whole process of mythologising a brutal and misogynistic serial killer for the sake of entertainment. From Hell is aware of the iconic status of Jack the Ripper as one of the fountainheads of modern horror – both real and fantastical – but chooses not to explore this idea in any real detail. A shame: because while From Hell is a moderately satisfying horror mystery – especially, I’d imagine, if you’re not too familiar with the subject matter – it’s not nearly as insightful or original as it thinks it is. Back to the drawing board, guys.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 5th October 2003:

Sometimes cinematic careers run in an odd kind of parallel way, two or more actors or directors collaborating or making similar films at the same time – consider Pacino and de Niro in the early and mid-1970s, or Lucas and Spielberg a little later on. Occasionally such parallel tracks remain in synch, in which case, if the artists in question are successful enough, the popular perception of an era can be established. What’s possibly even more interesting is if their paths diverge – Spielberg has recently hit a vein of impressive, largely gritty and downbeat form, to some critical acclaim, while Lucas’ return to directing has been financially successful but critically pilloried.

Two other directors whose careers have spiralled around each other for many years are Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Tarantino, virtually singlehandedly, started the geekpunk charge out of the video stores and garages and into the movie studio offices, and Rodriguez was amongst the highest profile of those who followed the trail he blazed. Rodriguez directed an early Tarantino script, and Tarantino appeared in more than one Rodriguez movie.

With Tarantino’s first movie in over five years soon upon us, it seems only appropriate that it should be heralded by an offering from Rodriguez. (One difference between the two is in their workrate – Rodriguez has directed more movies in the last three years than Tarantino’s managed in over a decade.) It’s an appropriately old-school exercise in hyperkinetic action, winkingly entitled Once Upon A Time In Mexico.

Johnny Depp, exercising pretty much the same acting muscles as he did in Pirates of the Caribbean, plays certifiably eccentric CIA agent Sands. Sands is involved in a complex scheme to topple the President of Mexico, foil a coup organised by criminal mastermind Barillo (Willem Dafoe), and then clear off with an awful lot of pesos and his exceedingly gorgeous ladyfriend Ajedrez (Eva Mendes). To assist with this he recruits ex-FBI agent Ramirez (Ruben Blades), who has a grudge against Barillo, and a legendary gunslinger known only as El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), who’s dropped out of sight following the murder of his wife (not much more than an extended cameo from Salma Hayek).

From this point on the plot does get terribly, terribly complicated, as there are a lot of characters all of whom are bearing grudges, double-crossing each other, and following their own agendas (frequent flashbacks to Banderas and Hayek’s earlier exploits also appear) – I just about managed to hang on to what was happening by my fingertips. This movie is obviously a homage to the epic spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, but at only 100 minutes or so in length this is a very cramped, half-pint sort of epic, particularly when – alongside all the plot – Rodriguez crams in extended gun battles at fairly regular intervals. This is a film that shows all signs of being heavily edited for length – the plot is incoherent and the characterisation skimpy (although, to be fair, this is something of a stylistic trait in Rodriguez movies, especially Desperado, to which this is a sort-of sequel).

However, the action sequences are as frenetically intense and inventive as any Rodriguez has come up with in the past, and a surprisingly eclectic cast (Banderas, Defoe, Mickey Rourke, Enrique Iglesias) keeps it engaging. The star turn of the movie is Depp, however, as for the second time in not many months he effortlessly blasts the ostensible leading man off the screen with a magnetic performance as the deeply morally ambiguous CIA agent. He’s witty and drolly funny, which matches the tone of the most of the film: this is a romp and not to be taken too seriously. Depp should probably make his next few script choices carefully, though, as he’s in danger of getting a reputation as a Nicholson-style pep-pill to boost underperforming scripts.

If you liked Desperado, it’s a safe bet you’ll like this – gentlemen will enjoy the high action quotient, and any ladies disappointed by the relatively small role played by Banderas will surely find consolation in the amount of Depp on offer. It’s even less thoughtful and considered than the previous film, but makes up for it with ambitiousness and bizarre humour. But it’s becoming obvious that Rodriguez is a director first and a writer second – all his films have terrific camerawork, editing, and visuals, but a distinct lack of depth or characterisation. His style hasn’t really developed in the decade since the original El Mariachi appeared, which is inevitably a bit of a disappointment. But the same can arguably be said of his peers, people like Kevin Smith and Tarantino himself, and at least his films are seldom less than entertaining. Once Upon A Time In Mexico certainly kept me amused, even if it’s nowhere near as substantial as the films it’s a homage to.

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