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Posts Tagged ‘Once Upon A Time In Mexico’

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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