Agent Sands (Johnny Depp) is an American CIA operative in Mexico sent to track the movements of Barillo (Willem Dafoe), a drug lord with his eye on assassinating the president of Mexico. Sands recruits El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) to help him thwart Barillo's plans, knowing that the Mariachi lives for revenge after a tragic incident cost him his wife and daughter. Persuading his partners Lorenzo (Enrique Iglesias) and Fideo (Marco Leonardi) to join in the fight, El Mariachi must stand in line as a host of other local characters (including actors Ruben Blades, Eva Mendes, Mickey Rourke and Danny Trejo) want in on the battle for control of Mexico.
It's not hard to see what inspired writer/director/editor/composer/cinematographer (on HD 24 fps cameras) Robert Rodriguez to make "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" (IMDb listing). The film follows the atmosphere and intricate plotting of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns of the 1960s, even referencing its title from his 1969 picture, "Once Upon a Time in the West." In actuality, "Mexico" is the third chapter in the "El Mariachi" series, created by Rodriguez in 1992. The sequel, 1995's "Desperado" was a shot of pure Mexican action, simultaneously staging wonderfully low-tech stunts and gunfights along with making star Antonio Banderas into an iconic Latino action figure in a rarely represented genre. For the third installment, Rodriguez has decided to test his luck; "Mexico" is a film chock full of labyrinthine plot happenings and characters, echoing the Leone desire to get as many people in on the action as possible. This is not simply "Desperado 2." Rodriguez even keeps the Mariachi character on the sidelines for most of the film, using him as just another cog in the rusty character wheel.
Because Rodriguez has changed the franchise's structure, "Mexico" is a very different experience than what has come before. Long gone are the dirt-cheap theatrics, sexual heat and overall giddiness of the series. It has been replaced with an epic tone; complete with bloodthirsty characters and plotting that will make your head spin (take notes). I adore how Rodriguez is trying to open up his script to fit more classical cinematic tones, and he succeeds more often than he fails. But one can't help but feel the vital fire and endless imagination that fueled the first two films is lacking a bit in "Mexico." Rodriguez almost treats his action sequences as an afterthought, staging them like commercial breaks in his plot. Kinetic energy is sorely needed to float this heavy screenplay, and since Rodriguez is also the editor, he is to blame for the careless burying of his own set pieces under disorganized, wholly unnecessary editing. Rodriguez is a long way from the $7,000 budget of "El Mariachi," having spent the last three years making the "Spy Kids" trilogy and honing his home studio skills. His "do all" trademark of filmmaking is getting in the way of his choices, with "Mexico" suffering from a director who may not have a clear idea as to what his boundaries are anymore.
As previously mentioned, Banderas' Mariachi character is only a supporting player in "Mexico." His limited screen time doesn't dilute the kick it is to see the actor in the role he's excelled in once before. Double-fisting guns (found in his guitar case, of course), surfing a staircase on said guitar case (one of the few deliciously outlandish Rodriguez tricks left in the film), or cozying up to Salma Hayek, El Mariachi brings out the best in Banderas, and it's disappointing to see the actor held back while Rodriguez tries to mount an oversized story. The actual lead player in all this is Johnny Depp. After this past summer's "Pirates of the Caribbean" success, the world is a little more accustomed to Depp's often askew take on his characters. Rodriguez doesn't quite clarify the loyalties of Agent Sands, allowing Depp to have great fun jumping from good cop to bad cop, often within the same scene. Supporting turns by the rest of the colorful cast are rock solid, but clouded by the persistently changing nature of the script.
And if you're going to the theater to catch Hayek reprising her traffic-stopping sexy role as Carolina, put the car back into park. Her screen time totals just over 5 minutes.
I stress again that "Once Upon A Time In Mexico" is not the thrill ride "Desperado" was or "El Mariachi" so nobly attempted to be. While working in basically the same vein as the other films, once "Mexico" reaches scenes of horrific plastic surgery procedures, you know Rodriguez is after something very different than what has come before. I respect this creation, as it offers something new to the overall collage of films released this year. But as a fan of "Desperado," and of Rodriguez's once admirable individuality, "Mexico" is a near miss in terms of where the filmmaker could've gone with this character and story.
Filmfodder Grade: B