By Stephanie Zacharek
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God bless Johnny Depp. For the second time this year, the man has almost single-handedly redeemed an action movie that would otherwise be indistinguishable from the pack. Introduced right up front in Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico, he's first seen dressed like Prince in purple glasses and jacket, delicately eating a plate of carnitas with knife and fork elegantly wielded in gloved hands. For no apparent reason, we soon learn that he has a prosthetic third arm. Two-thirds of the way through the film, when he suffers a bizarre disfigurement that fans of Lucky McKee's May should totally dig, the performance really takes off; it's a virtual guarantee that Internet geeks will shortly be petitioning Todd McFarlane to make an action figure of Depp's character Sands. Those sensitive gypsy roles in the likes of Chocolat and The Man Who Cried are hereby forgiven. The only downside is that you may forget Once Upon a Time in Mexico is supposed to star Antonio Banderas.
Banderas remember him? Some women used to think he was hot stuff or something. Rodriguez seems to be trying to turn him into the Mexican Clint Eastwood, but that doesn't quite work, because: a) Banderas isn't Mexican; and b) as Pedro Almodóvar and fans of Rodriguez's own Spy Kids franchise have learned, stoic isn't necessarily the way to go for a man with such a natural flair for comedic acting. Banderas was fun when tweaking the archetype a bit in The Mask of Zorro and Desperado. But here he's one of many ingredients thrown into a big stew, vanishing off screen for what feels like long stretches and pitted against a firecracker performance by Depp, while seemingly being told by writer-director Rodriguez to play things as humorlessly as possible. Even Clint occasionally got a laugh or two back in the day.
The film's title suggests that Rodriguez was looking to Sergio Leone for inspiration, but it actually plays more like the typical output of Takashi Miike, the Japanese "outlaw" director in his early forties. He has made more than 60 films, many of them over-the-top, absurdist, ultraviolent crime movies that feel slapped together on the fly. Miike films like Ichi the Killer often come across as amalgamations of everything the director happened to think was cool at that moment in time.
Likewise, Once Upon a Time in Mexico: In addition to being shot on Rodriguez's favorite new toy (the Sony 24P digital camera) and starring Depp and Banderas, the movie features Mickey Rourke, Willem Dafoe, Enrique Iglesias, Eva Mendes, Ruben Blades, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo and Salma Hayek, not to mention a plot with more double crosses and subplots than you could shake a stick at. The auteur's irreverence is infectious -- opening credits call Once Upon a Time in Mexico "a Robert Rodriguez flick" and note that it was "shot, chopped and scored" by Rodriguez -- but a little more distance from his creation, or a high-level collaborator to offer a second opinion, might have improved the storytelling tremendously.
It's kinda-sorta the third film in Rodriguez's Mexico series, which began with El Mariachi (itself loosely based on the spaghetti western Django) and continued with Desperado, but continuity's not this series' strong suit. Trejo and Marin, for instance, were killed in Desperado only to return in the new film as different characters, while each movie has also seen a tonal shift from that of its predecessor. El Mariachi was more comedic and quirky than the kinetic, John Woo-inspired Desperado. Once Upon a Time in Mexico tries to have it both ways, incorporating larger action sequences into a lower-budget framework, but as with the Spy Kids sequels, which Rodriguez was so proud to have made for less money than the original, the corner-cutting feels like corner-cutting. Digital video is a tool like any other, but the fact is the actors' faces look too red, and the shotgun blasts and explosions simply don't look as stylish as they did on film last time around. Advance hype had it that this would be the movie to prove DV could look as good as film. Uh, nope.
The story doesn't matter greatly since it all boils down to a bunch of guys shooting each other with unfeasibly massive shotgun pistols. CIA agent Sands (Depp) wants to instigate a coup against the president of Mexico (Pedro Armendariz), but isn't necessarily keen on the lead rebel General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil), who's backed by drug kingpin Barillo (Dafoe). Therefore, Sands hires the mysterious El Mariachi (Banderas, of course) to whack Marquez shortly after the coup takes place. Sands knows that El Mariachi has a score to settle anyway, since Marquez offed his wife and daughter. Meanwhile, Sands is also moving to eliminate Barillo, by provoking retired FBI agent Jorge into a righteous anger with reminders that Barillo tortured and killed Jorge's best friend. Jorge's still methodical, though; he tries to get to Barillo by putting the screws to the drug lord's American sidekick Billy (Rourke, fully accessorized with the annoying dog he insists on having in all his films). Through it all, Depp's the man to watch, and reason enough to recommend the flick despite its muddled nature. There are one or two moments of inspiration not involving him, like an escape sequence in which a chained-together Banderas and Hayek descend, Slinky style, down a series of fire escapes. The remote control guitar case is also nifty, and when Dafoe receives his own wacky disfigurement similar to Depp's, he likewise cuts loose with a campy energy Banderas is missing. Fans of Salma Hayek should note that she appears only in flashback and is utterly inessential to the story; Eva Mendes, however, looks the hottest she's ever been.
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