More noise than signal

Once Upon A Time in Mexico

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

The third of Robert Rodriguez’s Mexican bullet ballets sees.. well, to be honest a lot of things happening at once with loose relation to each other, more on which later, but that means it doesn’t lend itself to neat, succinct recaps. Try this on for size – Antonio Banderas’ Mariachi just wants to live a quiet life after the death of Salma Hayek’s Carolina at the hands of Gerardo Vigil’s evil General Marquez, but he’s drafted by Johnny Depp’s CIA goon Sheldon Jeffrey Sands as a hired gun.

Marquez himself has been hired by Mexican drug baron Armando Barillo, played, pointlessly, by noted non-Latino Willem Dafoe, to take out the President. As the CIA only approves of regime change when they’re pulling the strings, Sands wants an oar stuck in that, hence leveraging El Mariachi’s past, and also drafting Rubén Blades’s retired FBI agent Jorge Ramírez, who has his own reasons for wanting Barillo dead. And so it goes, with a whole bunch of plot twists and supporting characters, played by the likes of Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes and Danny Trejo.

I didn’t have particularly fond memories of …in Mexico, at least in so far as I had any memories at all of it. However, for the first half of the film I thought perhaps I’d been mistaken. It had been a while since I last watched a Rodriguez film, and his blend of action and visuals are still a very enjoyable thing to watch.

However the second half falls off the rails a little. The essential reason you’d be watching it, I suppose, remains fine, with the action continuing apace, but why any of this is happening is soon lost in a mess of setups, double crosses, revelations and betrayals and the like, mostly happening to characters we’ve barely met and therefore aren’t all that bothered about. These convolutions are apparently by design, but all that goes to show is that achieving a goal and the goal being worth achieving are not necessarily the same thing.

Through all this Johnny Depp floats around, alternately instigating or explaining things to no great effect, occasionally arbitrarily killing people for no reason, consuming screen time that ought to be going to Antonio Banderas’ character, who’s the only one we have any emotional investment at all in.

In many ways, this seems like a budget in search of a story. The shoestringesque amount El Mariachi was made for proved to be a mother of invention, and the relatively colossal amount, albeit modest in the grander scheme of Hollywood budgets, given to Desperado allowed a similar tale to be told with more style and assurance. With the relatively super-collosal mountain of cash secured for …in Mexico, I rather wonder if there was much of a plan for that money other than “More”.

More characters, more stunts, more plotlines, more big name, big price tag actors. What there isn’t, really, is much of a reason to care about anything that’s been thrown at you, and this winds up being much less than the sum of its parts.

I don’t actually dislike Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and there a number of entertaining scenes in there amongst all the excess. The problem is why should I tell you, dear listener, to watch this, and not El Mariachi or Desperado instead, which are just better films all round. If you want to complete that set, however, I wouldn’t necessarily warn you away from it, but it’s not in the same league as the earlier outings. Indeed, I wrote these notes before rewatching the earlier pair, and I suspect I’d be rather less forgiving towards …in Mexico had I watched them in order.