Once Upon a Time at the Multiplex just north of Mexico
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By jank - Last updated: Tuesday, September 30, 2003 - Save & Share - 2 Comments

Went to catch “Once Upon A Time in Mexico”:http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/onceuponatimeinmexico/ this evening. I loved it, but I’m not completely sure if I can recommend it to ‘normal’ folks. If you strongly preferred “Desparado”:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112851/ to “El Mariachi”:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104815/ then OUATIM is going to disappoint you. Likewise, if you loved the intimacy of “El Mariachi”, then OUATIM will probably leave you cold.

But I liked it. A lot.


There’s a dearth of movies requiring thought being made. ‘Mexico’ is not one of them. Every character in the flick (with the exception of Enrique Iglesias and the other mariaci who isn’t Antonio Banderas) has reason to betray and/or kill every other character. Plot twists occur as often as explosions. Resolution: Seemingly impossible. Redemption: a requesite. Oh, and the big-assed double barreled pistol that shoots shotgun shells is back.

In a lot of ways, this is an anti-Desparado. It lacks the sweet, sweet soundtrack (I can mail it to you if necessary), linear plot, and singular focus of the second movie in the trilogy. It’s not nearly as pretty. Instead of a softly-lit scene of Selma Hayek, nude, singing acapella softly to Antonio Banderas (I have to say his name out loud each time I write it) in the middle of the movie, the biggest flesh shot is a thigh surrounded by throwing knives immediately before bad guys meet violent deaths. It’s a lovely thigh, still, but that ain’t what this flick is about.

Robert Rodriguez deliberately set out to make this movie as an homage (o-magh) to the trio of ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ (Fistfull of Dollars; For a Few Dollars More; and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) that cemented Clint Eastwood’s career. IMO, he succeeds extremely well. The cuts between extremely wide and extreme close-up work well, showing the burden on the character’s souls as evidienced in every wrinkle and pore on their faces. Much unlike the shot-by-shot remake of Psycho completely failed to capture Hitchcock (IMO), Rodriguez nails Sergio Leone’s style with aplomb and love. The movie just feels big.

Literalists will have a lot of problems with the film, especially if they’ve seen the two prequels. El Mariaci is the same character (essentially), but the history is all different. El settled down with Selma Hayek’s character, bought a big house, and lived in a small Mexican village where apparently the local source of income was making maraici guitars. Not special exploding guitars; just musical guitars. The big knife-throwing dude from Desparado is back, except this time he’s a gun toting toady for Willem DaFoe’s drug kingpin. Little crap like that kept Missy’s sister Jen from enjoying the film.

This is where the review breaks down into random notes. I caught the flick over a week ago; just haven’t gotten around to posting a review.

Phenomenal scenes: Suprisingly, the climactic battle isn’t one of them. There’s a great scene at the end where Mickey Rourke redeems a decade of bad acting, but we won’t give that away. My favorites are a shootout in a church where El tries to not be completely sacreligous despite two bad guys blowing the crap out of the place. And the marketplace shootout plays exactly like something out of a Jackie Chan movie, with bad guys popping out of all kinds of places to die suitably violent deaths. The marketplace scene devolves into a pretty decent motorcycle chase, too.

Acting:

Johnny Depp is having a career-making year. We’ve hit Pirates ad nauseum here; this is another stellar performance. Maybe the brothers Baldwin should join him in France; the cheese fumes seem to have resurrected his acting skillz. He plays a CIA operative who is equal parts repulsive and manipulative, with a side of smarmyness. I think that Rodriguez was trying to write a character whom no one could love; Depp plays the part such that this shell (as I’m certain that the character has no soul) actually engenders sympathy at the end when he’s had his eyes gouged out and is seeing his manipulations fall apart. Freakin’ Academy Award performance if the awards were actually given for good acting.

Mickey Rourke has been rode hard and put away wet (apparently in a container that doesn’t get much air) over the last decade. The guy looks like shit. Apparently, he’s on the Nick Nolte’s Hollywood program, without the acting success. His performance here as a fugative on the lam from a rap in the US redeems a career that peaked with 9 1/2 Weeks, and hasn’t had a glimmer since Harley Davidson and the Marlbro Man. Again, there’s not a whole lot I can go into without giving away plot, but he’s all about Redemption.

Willem DaFoe is kind of disappointing here. He’s supposed to be the big, bad drug kingpin, but he suffers from his success. He’s made a name playing characters without overplaying them. Here, he fails to make the over-the-top performance necessary to make his character seem, well, EVIL. There’s a funny scene where he gets Mickey Rourke to kill his piano teacher, but his heart doesn’t seem quite in it. Could have been a good part for him, ‘cept not.

Eva Mendez is a complete and total suprise. Her character is equal parts sugar and sour. I was turned on; I wanted her to hurt me.

Danny Trejo (the assassin w/ knives in Desparado) has a much expanded role in OUATIM. And he does extremely well with it.

Lastly, we’ll hit Ruben Blades. His part as a retired FBI officer used by Depp’s character is done well. His mental migration from retirement back into pretended investigation is well done, and he’s one of the few characters for whom real sympathy is felt.

The last item to note is that the movie was shot and produced entirely on Digital video. There’s a couple of places where this is pretty apparent, as the color balance is off. I’m not sure that an action movie set in Mexico was the best of places to experiment with technology; I would have loved to have seen the flick with a little more vibrant color. But, based on the character performances, I’m kind of inclined to think that Rodriguez made a good choice to go with it. The acting feels fresh, not forced, which may be a function of being able to rapidly review footage (files?) and shoot again if the desired shot isn’t there.

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2 Responses to “Once Upon a Time at the Multiplex just north of Mexico”

Comment from etrigan
Time October 1, 2003 at 9:20 am

I didn’t enjoy this film as much as a lot of people (including you, jank.) I thought Johnny Depp was given too much rein. Even considering Rodriguez’s forray into absurdist film with OUATIM, Depp comes off just a little silly for my tastes. I think Anotonio’s acting skills are starting to show under the short skirt of his good looks.

It was an ok movie, but I wouldn’t see it again — unlike The Rundown which is drawing me back with it’s awesome WWF-infused opening fight scene.

Comment from jank
Time October 1, 2003 at 9:38 am

I agree – this is either a love it/completely cold film. I don’t think it’s far off enough to hate. But, as I said, I don’t think I can recommend it to ‘normal’ types.

acting skills are starting to show under the short skirt of his good looks.

This was the biggest shocker for me – Antonio Banderas looked like crap, probably intentionally. Jen’s comment was “You should never get a co-star who is hotter than you” WRT Enrique (He’s so dreamy…)

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