July 2024

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

DIRECTOR: Robert Rodriguez


Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke, Willem Dafoe, Eva Mendes, Ruben Blades, Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Enrique Iglesias, Gerardo Vigil, Pedro Armendariz, Julio Oscar Mechoso


To put it simply and bluntly, Once Upon A Time In Mexico is a mess of a movie, but it’s enough of a colorful, stylish, entertaining mess that it’s possible to enjoy as a series of action/comedic setpieces even if the overall story is a convoluted jumble. Desperado was a much more streamlined, coherent, and overall a better-crafted film, but Rodriguez brings enough flair, panache, and humor that we can forgive him (for the most part) for letting his excesses run away with him a little more this time.

After El Mariachi’s (Antonio Banderas) conflicts with drug cartels have once again left him a loner mourning the loss of his girlfriend Carolina (Salma Hayek, appearing only in flashbacks), he is hired by a bizarre supposed CIA agent named Sands (Johnny Depp) to assassinate General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil), with whom Mariachi’s path has crossed before, who is in cahoots with drug lord Barillo (a black-haired Willem Dafoe, speaking most of his lines in subtitled Spanish) in a plot to overthrow the Mexican President (Pedro Armendariz).

Or something like that. Desperado had a very simple and straightforward story, and that suited it perfectly. Once Upon A Time In Mexico has way too much plot for its own good; after all these are the kinds of movies that are heavier on style than substance. The broad strokes of the story are understandable, if a bit convoluted, but then all kinds of supporting characters are thrown into the mix: a Mexican drug enforcement agent (Eva Mendes), a retired FBI agent (Ruben Blades) persuaded into taking one last shot at Barillo for the murder of his partner, the Mexican President and his two-faced aid (Julio Oscar Mechoso), and so on. And then there is the character of Sands, who is not precisely a bad guy, nor a good guy, and wanders blithely through the convoluted proceedings like a movie unto himself, on a level of oddness that only Johnny Depp can achieve, and whose goals and motives are unclear to say the least (although Depp is so entertaining that we don’t really care).

Antonio Banderas is enough of a stylish, charismatic presence, and has enough chances to be ultra-cool (jumping off buildings, firing back at baddies as he goes) to just narrowly avoid being overshadowed by Johnny Depp, but Depp comes very close to stealing the show. I’m not sure whether Depp actually serves the rest of the movie or distracts from it, but he’s so enjoyable that the movie would lose something (maybe quite a bit) without him. Depp as Sands has all the hallmarks of an eccentric actor being given a role and told ‘here, go have fun’ by the filmmakers. Obviously allowed to basically do whatever he wants, Depp brings a limitless array of strange little touches (most of which he probably made up completely on his own)- walking around in an endless series of unconvincing disguises and tacky outfits, delivering bribe money in a Clash of the Titans lunchbox, enjoying his food so much that he then has to head straight for the kitchen and gun down the chef to ‘restore balance’, and wearing an artificial arm because…well, just because. Salma Hayek, despite being second-billed, appears only in a handful of flashbacks, but she gets two nifty action sequences.

The supporting cast is, to say the least, eclectic, including the likes of Willem Dafoe, Eva Mendes, Ruben Blades, Mickey Rourke (as a Dafoe lackey), and Enrique Iglesias (as one of Banderas’ cohorts). Just in case there’s any doubt we’re not to take this too seriously, Desperado casualties Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo pop back up again, albeit not as the same characters. The sinister Dafoe is underused, as is Rourke, who hangs around incongruously cradling a Chihuahua, and seems poised to deliver some more colorful lines than he’s given a chance to (Rodriguez would later give Rourke a great role in 2005’s Sin City).

Once Upon A Time In Mexico doesn’t boast the endless series of hyper-stylized gunfights that marked Desperado; there’s too much plot to allow as much action, and all the different characters with their own agendas running around dilutes the focus on any one character, including Banderas. Which is not to say that Once Upon A Time In Mexico is boring. The tone is often more overtly comedic than Desperado, and bits are flat-out hilarious, the vast majority of which are related to Johnny Depp’s off-the-wall, extremely eccentric portrayal of Sands (at one point he asks Danny Trejo if he’s a ‘Mexi-can’t, or a Mexi-can‘, to which Trejo answers with stone-faced deadpan, ‘I’m a Mexi-can‘). Rodriguez might have allowed his follow-up to Desperado to balloon into excess and self-indulgence, as well as a feeling that he’s sometimes making it all up and throwing it together as he goes along, but he has an instinctive, exuberant flair for stylish, energetic filmmaking, and that carries Once Upon A Time In Mexico through despite very obvious flaws. Don’t try to understand all of it, just enjoy it for what it is.