You've got to respect a director like Robert Rodriguez. Guy makes films largely on his own terms, and if he's got an idea for a movie, he's got the resources and facilities to go ahead and act on the impulse better than most, with Machete being a prime example of this. With Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Rodriguez was ending a trilogy of films that started with his emergence into cinema and ended with him looking toward greater horizons.
Rodriguez (deep breath in) wrote, directed, produced, scored, edited and shot the film, and was responsible for its production design, sound effects and visual effects. The film is the third in the trilogy following the musician/assassin El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas, reprising his role from the second film Desperado). Mariachi is recruited by a corrupt CIA agent named Sands (Johnny Depp, Blow) to help eliminate a Mexican general who wishes to overthrow the government and potentially elevate a drug lord (Willem Dafoe, Fantastic Mr. Fox) to run the county. Sands is doing what he can to control the puppet strings in all this, hoping that a retired agent will kill the drug lord. Mariachi doesn't want to do the job at first, as he still mourns the loss of his wife Carolina (Salma Hayek, Desperado), but he eventually decides to do it.
When watching Mexico, the feeling I was getting when I was seeing this was that it was less about tying up any possible loose ends from the second film and served more of a "Hail and Farewell" purpose to the characters created. I'd never seen Mexico before this and while I wasn't expecting to be immediately invested in the story, I'd at least expected some of the bombastic action and entertaining murders that came in popcorn movies like the ones that Rodriguez has done since in Sin City and Planet Terror. One can definitely see the promise in Mexico as stunts feel a little more raw and unpolished, and his vision has certainly evolved as he's become more comfortable with the technology in each film.
With the mix of Rodriguez regulars like Banderas and Hayek, in Depp and Dafoe you have longtime admirers who relish the chance to work with him for the first time. There are also some people (like Danny Trejo and Mickey Rourke) who went on to more prominent roles in Rodriguez films and serve this film as supporting characters. That's to say nothing about the stunt casting of singer Enrique Iglesias as one of Mariachi's brothers in the battle. Honestly seeing him use a guitar case as a flame thrower was comical.
However despite the casting and the convoluted (and even confusing) story, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a nice look into how Rodriguez grasped his craft even then, and seeing his films since then, how it's evolved. The film is more valuable as a milestone of sorts rather than one with creative (or even guilty pleasure) merit, so maybe looking at the film with that perspective it can be appreciated by others more than me. Either way, Rodriguez' vision and his ability to realize it so vividly has been beneficial to us all and if this was the catalyst for it, more power to him.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Once Upon a Time in Mexico comes to Blu-ray in 1.78:1 widescreen high definition using the AVC codec. Rodriguez shot the film in high-definition after George Lucas showed the technology to him during a visit to Skywalker Ranch, and he's been a fan since. The film looks good for a recent independent joint; blacks are fairly deep, image detail is available in the closer shots and colors are vivid without much oversaturation. The film image doesn't stay as sharp in the later sequences, but for a then-infant technology looks good for its age and its production values.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track is a little bit of a mixed bag, but still worth checking out. The early sequence when El Mariachi kills almost everyone in the bar sounds great, with loads of subwoofer punch on the low end and directional effects with bullets and thrown knives all over the sound stage. That type of action and immersion is prevalent throughout many of the action sequences. But in the quieter moments the dialogue is inconsistent in stretches and requires a bit of user compensation. For disclosure's sake, I was watching this on my old-school PS3 because for whatever reason my Oppo couldn't get past the menu screens, so that might figure into it, but it's those quieter sequences that kept me from giving it the full monty.
It looks like most of the extras from the 2004 Special Edition standard definition disc have been retained. The DVD-ROM material was cast aside for the Blu-ray exclusive "Cutting Room" feature, which allows users to edit scenes, incorporate music and generally have an Avid in their home theater. It's a little clunky to operate but is a nice feature, along with the movieIQ subtitled feature that appears on most Sony Blu-ray titles these days.
Starting off, there's a commentary with Rodriguez that's packed with information. He talks about the inspiration for some of the new characters, talks about his work process and recalls some of the specific shots and how he approached them at the time of production. He's also got a good deal of anecdotal information about what occurred on the set. It's an excellent track, but for those fans of Rodriguez, I'd make a note that the second commentary (which was a mix of isolated score and soundtrack work) from the standard def disc isn't here either.
Everything else appears to be here. You've got eight deleted scenes (7:24) that show off Depp's character a bit more, followed by a "Ten Minute Flick School" that actually runs 9:04. In it, Rodriguez shows how some of the scenes were shot and talks about the benefits of shooting fast and efficiently, and breaks down some scenes in terms of before and after they had computer effects applied to them, and shows the edits in others. He does an excellent job of explaining the benefits of shooting "fast and in control," and it's entertaining stuff. "Inside Troublemaker Studios" (11:22) is when Rodriguez shows us where the creative magic happens at his Austin home, including mixing boards, editing rooms, and where he composes some of the score for his films. He even has some DVD menus he's working on when we see him. It's a fascinating look inside his work area. For a change of piece, the "Ten Minute Cooking School" (5:48) is where Rodriguez shows us the making of the pork dish Depp's character enjoys in the film. It looks very good and worth trying in your kitchen. "Film Is Dead" (13:18) is a Q&A session Rodriguez hosts where he talks of the benefits in shooting in high-definition and the benefits of shooting with the medium as opposed to film. "The Anti-Hero's Journey" (18:03) is where the story is examined and broken down by Rodriguez and others as they share their thoughts on their characters and the Director leading them, and how this film fits into the Mariachi trilogy. "The Good, the Bad and the Bloody" (19:03) is a look inside the makeup wizards at KNB including Greg Nicotero, recently of The Walking Dead fame.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico may not be as much of a crowd-pleasing good time as some of his other films, but it is a nice celebratory lap around the track for him and the characters he created. Technically this is a better disc than I was expecting and the extras make for an educational experience. Worth purchasing if you're a Rodriguez fan or if you're looking to double-dip, as the lossless track is worth it alone.