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"You have to see Robert Rodriquez movies! He's the new answer to Sergio Leone!"
I'd heard that comment enough to make looking at Once Upon a Time in Mexico an imperative, and this new Superbit disc of Rodriguez action spectacular seemed the perfect opportunity. Despite the general decline in American action films in the past few years (the Chinese seem the new leaders in maintaining worthy narratives along with the thrills), the cast alone was reason to take the plunge. Since when is Johnny Depp not entertaining?
Once Upon a Time in Mexico turns out to be a glossy, hyper-cynical display of action technique as hollow as El Mariachi's guitar. If this is the leading edge of modern action filmmaking, I'll go back to older movies any day.
The domination of comic books, graphic novels, music videos and animes over the action film reaches its zenith in Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Back in the early 70's, a movie with even a hint of the stylized feel of a comic book was a rare animal. Danger: Diabolik had the dazzling visuals, but the Kung-Fu movies of the time had other agendas, and most attempts at fantastic genre stylization (for example, 99 & 44/100ths % Dead) had so many problems sorting out concepts of camp, spoofery and homage, they forgot to have a point. Star Wars hit the winning combination for space-opera action, at least for a couple of films.
Now, practically every film with some action in it is a comic book spectacle. We aren't expected to believe anything on screen, and the only context is whatever fantasy 'universe' the filmmakers see fit to create. In anything dealing with real crime, international terror, police or military action, the stories are ridiculously simplified. Terrorists are slimy super-criminals hiding behind ersatz political motives (Die Hard). The workings of organized crime and political violence are reduced to fantasies where the drug-runners and revolutionaries become meaningless demonized villains, colorful and killable.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico does the usual Latin American thing by creating grotesque drug cartel bad guys with bizarre habits like murdering just for the fun of it, as seen in the violent James Bond film Licence to Kill. How do they get anyone to work for them, when even the poor butlers can be shot at any moment? At one point the maniac kingpin Barillo ushers a man out of the room with instructions to his henchman Billy to kill him horribly. We don't even have to see Billy do it.
Of course, there's no point in looking for characters to hang on to. The most interesting role is Sands, and Johnny Depp treats it as a stunt to flatter his own wild-card image. Rodriguez has Sands casually shoot a restaurant cook because his pork plate is too good, which is supposed to be a masterpiece of cynical levity. All it does is top the previous benchmark of offhand brutality set by Terminator 2, when Arnold Schwarzenegger's kinder, gentler robot shot policemen in the knees instead of killing them, as a gesture of sensitivity. 1
Depp's character undergoes a traumatic torture at the end, becoming a ridiculous blinded figure using a street urchin to help fight the bad guys. The script is inventive, but never in a way that builds anything bigger out of its collection of gross-out stunts and nasty moments. A subplot involving plastic surgery to help a criminal mastermind escape detection is lifted from the old noir movie His Kind of Woman. Once Upon a Time in Mexico takes the idea to gory extremes of cruelty, and then does nothing with it. 2
At the center but barely holding it is Antonio Banderas' bigger-than-life action hero El Mariachi, who is presented in music video terms. His hair hangs fashionably in front of his face and his every movement is reinforced with bold sweeps of the camera. El Mariachi might as well be magic because he can disappear from a confessional booth and climb a featureless wall in the interval between a trigger being pulled and a bullet hitting its target. Guns mean nothing, as massed fire only creates picturesque clouds of bullet hits to frame his athletic escapes. And there's the obligatory moment where El Mariachi and his beloved are able to outrun an exploding gasoline truck, falling harmlessly to a paved street only fifteen feet or so below them. Conceptually, the action is terrible.
In execution, director Rodriguez puts a high tech gloss on every action moment, and his showoff shots do communicate a coherent narrative, which makes his work much better than the empty pictorializing of Michael Bay. But it's kinetic, empty gloss. We can sense the support wires in place, even after they've been painted out at digital workstations.
Robert Rodriguez' attractive camerawork sets up the shallow bad guys and does its best to lend gravity to the film's motivating trauma. It must be a Hollywood law that all action movies must now have a motivating trauma somewhere in the past of the protagonist. We have to believe that El Mariachi can't eat a bowl of cornflakes without obsessing over his need to avenge the murder of his wife, in slow motion flashbacks. Why he should consider her particular life so sacred amid such casual slaughter is a mystery. I don't know how others reacted, but I thought the flashbacks were a double disappointment lacking in mystery. We simply see the beautiful Carolina and her daughter ambushed, beauty cut down by yet another (yawn) implacable killer. When the time frame cuts back to El Mariachi, still seething over this crime, his cold stares and focused violence are no more moving than that of the clowns in American Ninja 3, or any number of downgrade, Cannon-level films. Secondly, Salma Hayek's presence is a cheat: although she's billboarded as a main character, she's on screen only in brief flashbacks and only has a couple of lines. She has no real scenes in the picture and is not really part of the story.
Robert Rodriguez apparently wrote, directed, filmed, edited, scored and coproduced the movie, and one wonders if the multiple hats really got him closer to his vision or made a difference in the long run. I have to say that I liked his romantic notion of the Mariachis playing their instruments before the carnage begins, but there's always another empty bit of violence every minute or so. Even the master guitar maker is killed offhandedly. Cars can't collide without the extra thrill of a digitally placed victim to be crushed between them. Did Rodriguez decide to make his popular Spy Kids movies to exercise the other half of his brain? Unfortunately, they're just as ephemeral as these El Mariachi epics - a couple of days later, I can hardly remember what any of them are about, either.
Columbia TriStar's Superbit disc of Once Upon a Time in Mexico presents the film plain-wrap with a high bit rate that will hopefully make a difference on top grade equipment and large monitors. On my big Mitsubishi screen there was always good detail in the many shadowy interiors of churches and restaurants. The best part of the crisp soundtrack are the guitar passages - simple sounds perfectly recorded. If Robert Rodriguez delivers what you want in screen action, this disc will make it look brighter and sound louder.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Once Upon a Time in Mexico rates:
1. I suppose it's possible
that all the nihilistic killing has a genuine Mexican flavor? Tales of Pancho Villa often include
the ugly/philosophical story of him riding up to an old comrade's farm to invite him to to join in
yet another revolution. The old pal says no, he's settled now with a wife and children. Pancho reminds
him of all the fun they had and what adventures lie ahead, but the married man still says no. So
Pancho smilingly shoots the man's wife and children dead. Now he has no more reason not to
join up. The farmer sighs, gets his gun and mounts his horse.
2. (serious spoiler): Depp's eyes are removed by Willem Dafoe's mad
doctor. What we see, courtesy of some slick digital manipulation are two clean fleshy eyesockets -
no eyelids or scarring just minutes after the procedure. Depp has stylized dried blood streaks down his
cheeks that evoke a fantastic representation of abstract Día de los
muertos artwork. But our reaction is more of a giggle and a "huh?" - what should be a profoundly
disturbing visual has no effect on us at all.