Drug lord Barrillo (Willem Dafoe, "Spider-Man") is backing General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil) to overthrow the government of the Mexican President (Pedro Armendariz, "Herod's Law") , so shady CIA agent Sands (Johnny Depp, "Pirates of the Caribbean") tracks down El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas, "Spy Kids III"), a man primed for revenge against the General, to kill him in the third entry of writer/director/cinematographer/editor/composer Robert Rodriguez's ("Spy Kids III") El Mariachi trilogy, "Once Upon a Time in Mexico."
One man show Rodriguez once again delivers flashy stunts and quirky humor to cap off his Mariachi saga, but his story is so overstuffed and overpopulated that El Mariachi seems more like a supporting character. Most of the huge ensemble cast gets his or her moment in the sun, although terrific performers like Ruben Blades are given short shrift in the busy tale.
The story begins with Cheech Marin's ("Masked & Anonymous") saloon owner efficiently and humorously bringing us and Sands up to date with a colorful retelling of the Mariachi myth. Sands is another of Depp's off the wall creations with his fake third arm (to hide the real one with its finger always on the trigger), colorful tourist garb right out of "Fear and Loathing" and habit of making payoffs in goofy vintage lunch boxes. Sands is lethal, however, and he sets off a chain of events by engaging not only El Mariachi to kill Marquez but retired FBI agent Jorge (Ruben Blades, "Assassination Tango") to go after Barrillo. He also sets up a man inside Barrillo's organization, discontented American and loyal dog owner Billy Chambers (Mickey Rourke, "Masked & Anonymous") and arranges to meet another undercover FBI agent, girlfriend Ajedrez (Eva Mendes, "2 Fast, 2 Furious") at the planned showdown. Meanwhile El Mariachi reassembles his team of Lorenzo (Enrique Iglesias, in a so-so screen debut) and the constantly soused Fideo (Marco Leonardi, "Like Water for chocolate") while reflecting on the events that led up to him losing his wife Caroline (Salma Hayek, "Frida") and daughter - and maybe, it is implied, his own life.
Rodriguez, who takes credit for having been 'shot, chopped and scored' the film, delivers in all three of those areas. His high definition video compositions include great facial closeups, making landscapes of the faces of Danny Trejo ("XxX") and Willem Dafoe, and classical spaghetti Western shootouts. Editing is tight, with one scene of El Mariachi and Caroline escaping from a 5th floor hotel room while manacled together an instant classic. His script has the feel of the passing of a baton, however, with Depp coming into the foreground as Banderas slides into the shadows. One of Sands's assembly turns out to have hidden ties to Barrillo and a confrontation leaves him hideously blinded, yet Sands continues his mission, wearing sunglasses over eye sockets dripping blood, aided by a young boy (Tony Valdes) who comes to idolize him. Most of the film's humor derives from Depp, costumed in an increasingly hilarious set of tee shirts (CIA, I'm With Stupid and the Taco Bell Chihuahua) or disguising himself in a Church confessional as what can only be described as a Yiddish Brando. Only Depp could sidle up to the imposing Trejo and make the line 'Are you a Mexican or a Mexican't?' work. In the end, he's costumed in myth-making beaded black both in contrast to and complementary of El Mariachi's more ethnic, musical style.
The trilogy's finale is entertaining, if ultimately empty. For all it's flash and dazzle "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" is too episodic and splintered, but a potential spinoff for Depp's blind assassin could be promising.
The saga that started out as a $7000 production, 1992's "El Mariachi," evolved into a sequel, "Desperado," that propelled Antonio Banderas and Selma Hayek to international stardom. Now, director-writer-producer-cinematographer-editor-and-more Robert Rodriguez continues the adventures of the guitar-slinging hero against a backdrop of revolution, greed and revenge in "Once Upon a Time in Mexico."
The eclectically talented Rodriguez shifts his focus a little away from El Mariachi this outing as he continues the legend of his surrealistic hero. But, with Johnny Depp given much of the limelight as a corrupt CIA operative working in Mexico and not liking it, the legend expands. The story begins with one-eyed barman Belini (Cheech Marin) telling the inquisitive Sands (Depp) about the fabled guitar-toting hero who stands for justice and hates the corrupt criminal influences in his country.
Sands searches for and finds the Mariachi and lays down a proposal: he wants to hire the guitar-playing gunman to kill the assassin who will soon attempt to kill the President of Mexico. The CIA agent isn't there to stop the coup, just make sure the killer, the ruthless General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil), does not seize power for himself. Marquez, the main henchman of drug lord Barillo (Willem Dafoe), is the man responsible for the deaths of the Mariachi's beloved wife and partner Carolina (Hayek) and their beautiful little girl. The guitarist/assassin agrees to take on the mission and recruits his mariachi partners Lorenzo (Enrique Iglesias) and hard-drinking Fideo (Marco Leonardi) to go into battle against the army of bad guys.
"Once Upon a Time in Mexico" is a fast-paced, super-charged action fest that abounds with shoot-'em-ups, chases, ambushes, mayhem galore and, as expected, a funny and entertaining performance by Johnny Depp. There is a lot going on in this concise (about 100 minute) homage to the works of Sergio Leone as the man known only as El Mariachi seeks revenge for the death of his family. Something died, too, within the man and, even though he does not trust Sands (when you meet him, you won't either), takes the job of killing the vicious killer, Marquez.
As the story races along from one big bang action sequence to the next, Sands is wheeling and dealing his way up the corruption ladder until he finally is confronted by the cold hearted kingpin Barillo. The nasty drug lord will stop at nothing to ensure his success and has the CIA agent's eyes gouged out. Sands, not a man to be diverted, enlists the aid of a kind-hearted little boy who helps the blind agent, with blood streaming from his eye-sockets, in his fight against Barillo's gunman. I understand that there is talk about spinning off the eyeless assassin in another Rodriguez feature - if Depp signs up, I will be gleefully there when it screens.
Although "Once Upon a Time in America" is an adrenaline pumping actioner, it also benefits from the caliber of its cast. Banderas is best when he is teamed with Hayek in the film flashbacks. There is a chemistry and energy between the two that makes them entertaining to watch as a modern movie couple, equals in every way. Depp, as always, is a pleasure to watch as he uses a fake arm to dupe his adversaries or as he extols the virtues of a regionally favorite pork dish - one is so good that he insists that he kill the chef for his perfection - and does so!
The cast, besides the principals, is made up with a Hispanic who's-who of character actors. Cheech Marin, always a pleasure to watch (who can forget his turn in "Paulie"), is solid as the one-eyed teller of the El Mariachi legend. Danny Trejo is around, again, this time as the badass bad guy who challenges the Mariachi - guess who wins. Cuban beauty Eva Mendes has a small role as a Mexican federale who is, secretly, the daughter of Barillo and damn near as wickedly bad. Ruben Blades is a sympathetic figure as a retired FBI agent who wants nothing more than justice. Mickey Rourke, about the only gringo, is fun as the Chihuahua-toting tough guy who works for the drug lord.
Production values are solid, as you would expect from perfectionist Rodriguez. He utilizes high-definition digital cameras to capture the action and the more portable equipment gives the maker the freedom to explore the genre more fully. Rodriguez, who, besides the above noted hats, also performed the jobs of production designer, visual effects supervisor, re-recording mixer and composer. He probably catered it, too. He is a true jack-of-all-trades and puts his multiple talents to the test and succeeds, mostly, with "Once Upon a Time in Mexico." I give it a B
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