ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICOEL MARIACHI Y AMIGOS | Sept 9, 2003
In theatres Sept 12, 2003
Kris and I just got back from the press screening and all I can say is, ‘whoa!’ Robert Rodriguez has proved he can still show the adults just as good a time as he shows the kids. Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a rare film these days as it is an action film with a plot you actually have to pay attention to! This film is much different from El Mariachi and Desperado, but is just as good, if not better.
It’s been a few years since we’ve last seen the Mariachi, though loads of stuff has happened to his character, regardless of the fact we were not there to watch. The main storyline involves a corrupt CIA agent Sands (Johnny Depp) who hires ‘El’ (Antonio Banderas) to kill a military General Marquez after he tries to assassinate the president of Mexico, during a coup d’etat planned by drug lord Barillo (Willam Dafoe.) ‘El’ agrees, as Marquez had previously killed his wife (Salma Hayek) and daughter. Meanwhile Sands convinces an AFN agent (Eva Mendes), and a retired FBI agent who has a score to settle with Barillo to investigate the cartel. Sound confusing? Possibly. Just pay attention and you should be fine. Rodriguez expertly juggles about a dozen characters while never losing sight of the main story.
Naturally, Johnny Depp steals the show, Antonio Banderas plays El as if he never left the role, Salma Hayek, while only in flashbacks, still manages to kick some ass. Even the supporting characters do a good job with their material. Mickey Rourke managed to hold my interest, while Eva Mendes did the necessary hot mugging for the camera while looking like a Latina hybrid of Gina Gershon and Angie Everheart.
The best part is it’s an action film that doesn’t insult its core audience. It’s a refreshing mishmash of action genres. You have nods to Zatoichi, half a dozen westerns, Drunken Master, and a dozen Hong Kong action films. It’s a comic book style of action, yet it never lapses into Hong Kong action absurdity. It’s actually pretty refreshing to see R rated violence in an R rated film (mad props to the KNB effects team). The funny thing is a scene of ocular destruction received less uncomfortable groans from the audience than a scene of a man getting an injection. Make of that what you will.
Revenge, romance, humour, creative torture and over-the-top violence, gorgeous melodies (including Hayek’s voice; Banderas’ guitar).. what else does a movie need, huh? Well, I need more, and Mexico delivers! Ultimately, Mexican patriotism shines through, Danny Trejo stating “I’m a Mexi-CAN [not a Mexi-CAN’T].”
While Depp is probably the only actor that can get away with lines such
as “I’m livin la vida loca”, there are many interesting
and important points embossed through his outsider/gringo perspective. For
example, at a bull fight*, he mentions how the animal is stabbed and weakened
before the matador even sets foot in the arena, possibly a metaphor for
political agenda “sheltering” the proletariat while ultimately
*This was a concept I struggled with as a teenager, viewing the assimilated act of compensating the bounds of loyalty and faith with cruelty [on one hand you have tradition, the other animal torture] and glorifying the end result. A fallacy of freedom.
Also interesting is the parallel between the Dia de la Muerte (Day
of the Dead) and Election Day in the U.S. --both occurring in the beginning
of November**, and the snobbery of avarice mainly in Cheech Marin’s
role and later taught to Enrique Inglesias’ character.
**This is only my observance and NOT reflected in the movie, so please don't sue Columbia or what-not over it.
Visually stunning shots mixed with swirling 360s, hand-held jumpiness and soap-opera-esque poses adds to audience involvement. You get caught up in the moment and feel like cheering or applauding, and you do. Also visually stunning are the actors (including Marco Leonardi from Like Water for Chocolate, Cinema Paradiso) but they are not just pretty props as in most movies. Rodriguez utilizes their strengths to create a realistic portrayal. If you are not eye candy in this movie, you are sculpted evil (Trejo, Dafoe) or a recognizable caricature (Cheech).. excellent casting.
Chris wasn’t kidding when he said you have to pay attention, so please, set up your refreshment picnic beforehand. You won’t want to miss a beat since anyone could get the axe, no one is safe, so watch your back when you’re in Mexico.