Robert Rodriguez's debut film El Mariachi, was a simple, effective modern western about a Mexican guitarist who takes on the might of an evil crime lord. Rodriguez wrote, directed, and made the film with his own money, intending it to go straight to video. Instead, it became an indie success, got a real cinema release, and, along with Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, ushered in the current climate where indie films are expected to be accessible and crowd pleasing too.
The follow up, Desperado, saw Antonio Banderas take over the role of Mariachi, with the original actor Carlos Gallardo reduced to sidekick status. Where the first film was charming, fun, but rough around the edges, Desperado was slick, glossy, and with more super fast action than a summer's worth of blockbusters. The story was the same though, the simple tale of one man against the big boss, and second time around he also got the girl; the lovely Carolina, played by Salma Hayek. The Mariachi character was made deliberately mythic, larger than life, in contrast to the rather ordinary guy of the first film.
The third Mariachi film is a failure for the most prosaic of reasons: there's really no story left to tell. Mariachi avenged himself, and got the girl. So now, we have to reverse things. It starts with the legend being told again, but now it's different: It's Carolina and her child that are dead: killed by an evil general. But what follows isn't just the usual simple revenge tale. Instead, Mariachi only appears here and there, while other characters get the bulk of the screen time.
Johnny Depp gets the biggest part, as corrupt CIA agent Sands, who starts out completely unlikeable. He kills a cook because his food is too good (eh?), guns down a waitress after he spills his drink, and is generally deserving of death. But he never really crosses paths with Mariachi, who he only meets at the start to supposedly hire him to kill the General. Instead, Depp's plot mostly involves his attempts to get even with crime lord Barillo, played by Willem Defoe. Add to this some flashbacks of Banderas and Hayek in impressive but unnecessary action scenes, (especially as we know Carolina is killed, so it's hard to care how she escaped from the general the time before) and the result is confused and ineffective. Mariachi gets his two partners back, but the role that the original Mariachi played last time is now taken by Enrique Iglesias. He looks the part, but he certainly can't act, and delivers his few lines so robotically it's pathetic.
No characters are sympathetic, except Mariachi, and we don't see enough of him to really engage with his vengeance against the general. And anyway, just how bothered is he, if he has to actually be hired to kill the man who killed his wife? As the film goes on, Sands becomes more sympathetic, but only because Barillo does such horrible things to him.
Once Upon A Time In Mexico was released to the cinema with no fanfare at all, and disappeared quickly, appearing on DVD very soon after. Made at the same time as Spy Kids 3D, Rodriguez directs, writes, edits, and is his own cameraman on both films. He's spread himself very thinly, and it shows, as the story is ill-matched bits and pieces thrown together with lots of style and verve, but with nothing to make it make any sense. The flashbacks don't help, nor do the many characters, all with their own goals, but none of them interesting. Another good, straightforward revenge tale would have just about been acceptable, but this isn't. Not just an unnecessary sequel, then, but an unnecessarily lacklustre one. 5/10
Adrian Horrocks (January 2005)
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