Once Upon a Time in Mexico Review

For Robert Rodriguez, 1992 was a great year – his feature debut, El Mariachi, had been picked up and distributed by Columbia Tristar and he was reaping the rewards. Made for a paltry $7000 on location in Mexico, it came a year after Rodriguez's first dabble with directing in Bedhead, a black and white short. The story of a passionate musician who became embroiled in a case of mistaken identity, El Mariachi was a hit and subsequently he became the talk of Hollywood.

After directing a made-for-TV feature in 1994, Rodriguez decided his next project should be based around a similar theme: so he decided to make a sequel to El Mariachi, entitled Desperado. Budgeted at $7 million, it had the feel of a studio film, yet one with independent and creative hands all over it. The role of El Mariachi, the unnamed musician turned gunslinger, went to Antonio Banderas (Carlos Gallardo played the part in the original) and Rodriguez managed to land a good supporting cast, headlined by the beautiful and talented Salma Hayek. Although it was classed as a sequel, it was in ways a stylised remake of the original, one that expanded on the story through use of more money, plus more extravagant set pieces and characters. Nonetheless, it was a big hit and it continued to do well on home video.

Flash forward to 2003 and the release of Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the third chapter in the Mariachi series. The idea for this instalment stemmed from a conversation Rodriguez and acclaimed writer/director/actor Quentin Tarantino had had on the set of Desperado; with Tarantino suggesting that the series should be extended to a trilogy, with part three being a Sergio Leone-influenced epic – and it had to be called Once Upon a Time in Mexico to reflect this homage to one of cinema's greatest auteurs. Calling back Banderas to reprise the role of El Mariachi, who was last seen riding off into the sunset with Hayek's Carolina at the end of Desperado, the film was released after several other films from the respected Texan. Since 1995, he had made another trilogy (Spy Kids), and two action horrors – From Dusk Till Dawn and The Faculty.

It took him a matter of weeks (under a month, it is rumoured) to write the screenplay for Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and he viewed it as a chance to finish the story of the Mariachi for all the fans of the first two films. El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), who has been in hiding since the gruesome slaying of his wife Carolina (Salma Hayek) and their young daughter, is enlisted by CIA Agent Sands (Johnny Depp) to kill General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil) who is planning a coup d'etat to overthrow the Mexican President (Pedro Armendáriz), assisted by sadistic drug lord Barillo (Willem Dafoe). The paths of El Mariachi and Marquez have crossed before, after the General was the man responsible for the deaths of his wife and daughter – and now, the clock is ticking to inevitable bloodshed…

The most striking thing about the film, right from the start, is its distinct visual design: Rodriguez paints a colourful and stylish canvas, with Mexico as his cultural inspiration and his kinetic direction as the leading star. People have accused his films of being little other than exercises in style over substance, and I agree to a certain extent…yes, his films lack substance for the most part, but the sheer thrills produced more than make up for it. Filled with explosive situations and kinetic set-pieces, the film really ramps up the action to 11 and never lets up.

The cast also deserve kudos, developing their individual characters as much as the relatively short running time allows. Banderas' role has actually been diminished somewhat from his prominence in Desperado, as El Mariachi becomes more of a co-star and not necessarily the lead character – Depp's Sands is on screen for almost exactly the same amount of time and most definitely steals the show. Just like he did in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Depp manages to create a quirky and memorable character, a man whose intents are never revealed until the end. In keeping with the Leone mould, Rodriguez has in fact written three main roles, just like in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – and the third character, the 'Ugly', is Dafoe’s Barillo.

Although Hayek's Carolina may have died before the events of the film, she does appear in flashback, recounting what happened in between Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. These story snippets hint at the possibility of another film in the series, although I'm unsure if Rodriguez wants to revisit this world for a fourth time. However, even though Hayek is on screen for a very limited time, she still smoulders and would be the best bit of eye candy (aside from the rampant action, of course) if it wasn't for Eva Mendes. Yes, Eva Mendes, who has recently risen to fame and fortune; kickstarted by 2001's Training Day. She is even sexier than Hayek, and her role in this is of a Mexican law enforcer who is on the trail of the antagonists, and she plays it well. The rest of the ensemble, featuring Rodriguez regulars such as Danny Trejo (who actually used to be a criminal) and Cheech Marin, add to the atmosphere of the film well.

So are there any flaws in Once Upon a Time in Mexico? Well, unfortunately, yes…but nothing that will seriously affect your enjoyment of the film. The aforementioned short running time (around 97 minutes) means that the story is condensed down a lot, resulting in a frantic pace that works both for and against the film. On the plus side, things never get boring, yet on the other side of the proverbial coin this pace results in confusion at times over just what is going on. The script is too heavily packed with sub-plots and sudden narrative changes, so it's hard sometimes to keep track on everything – although everything does come together fairly satisfactorily at the end.

Overall, I rate this third chapter the best in the Mariachi series: it's packed with engaging action sequences and has a romantic feel to the film, mainly through the use of visuals. Vibrant, artistic and beautifully crafted, this definitely has style. Special mention must again go to Robert Rodriguez (as if his name hasn’t been mentioned enough already!) for not only writing and directing this film, but also being the guy who 'Shot, Chopped and Scored' the film as the credits proudly state. In reality he probably did a hell of a lot more, as he loves to take almost full control of each of his films, an admirable quality for a filmmaker.

The Disc
El Mariachi and Desperado have been available on R2 DVD for a long time, both presented on the same disc and both carried some very good extras, featuring extensive input from Rodriguez. A collector's edition of the latter was released fairly recently (which only had a couple of extra, and needless, featurettes) and also a boxset of all three films will be released to tie in with Once Upon a Time in Mexico's individual release.

The menus are animated superbly, with clips from the film and the rousing score playing in the background. They are very easy to navigate.

Stunning. The film was shot on the first generation of HDD (High Definition Digital) Cameras, yet the quality and attention to detail on even these original cameras is stunning. The DVD's anamorphic widescreen transfer, presented in the correct aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (in cinemas the film was shown in 2.35:1, to give it more 'scope'), is reference quality. It has crystal-clear visuals throughout, excellent colour definition and no signs of any edge enhancement; along with no visible artefacts and absolutely no grain whatsoever. People may argue that digital filmmaking looks too artificial and doesn’t compare with traditional 35mm, but after seeing this you will have a change of opinion, I assure you.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also vibrant, although sadly not reference quality. On the plus side, the surrounds get used a lot – especially in the numerous gunfights – and the subwoofer is used occasionally (although not enough for bass junkies out there). The dialogue is crystal-clear throughout, presented strongly through the front channels. It's certainly not a shabby effort.

Things kick off with an excellent audio commentary by Robert Rodriguez, and in usual style he explains every technique employed in the film to give the listener a sense of great insight and information into how filmmaking can be done. Interesting throughout, this is one of the best audio commentaries of recent memory.

Six featurettes are included, starting with 'Ten Minute Flick School', a regular featurette on Rodriguez discs. Lasting for just under the titular ten minutes, it explains how some of the shots were obtained in the film, again full of insight like the audio commentary. 'Inside Troublemaker Studios' is a 12-minute look at how Rodriguez moulds his film post-shooting, as he has all the necessary equipment in his garage at home in Texas! Showing us how he edits and scores films, I found this fascinating. In a similar vein to the Flick School, 'Ten Minute Cooking School' is present, and Rodriguez takes 5 minutes to show the viewer how to make Puerco Pibil, as seen in the film. A nice addition and at least it's better than the usual EPK dross. A 14-minute talk from Rodriguez (again!) is included, entitled 'Film is Dead: An Evening with Robert Rodriguez'. It's him talking about the merits of shooting HDD, and if the look of the film alone isn't enough to convert you, then this will – very interesting. Finally, the remaining two featurettes – 'The Anti-Hero's Journey' and 'The Good, the Bad and the Bloody: Inside KNB FX' – cover the Mariachi films' evolution and the film's effects respectively. They clock in at a combined length of just less than 40 minutes, and are yet again worth watching.

Eight deleted scenes, which have a combined running time of around 7 minutes, are on offer, although they add very little to the film and deserved to be cut. There is a 'Play All' function available, as well as optional commentary from Rodriguez on all the scenes.

Filmographies, four trailers (El Mariachi, Desperado, Once Upon a Time in Mexico and er, The Mask of Zorro), and some DVD-ROM features round off the package.

Unfairly slated on release, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a rip-roaring action thriller packed full of insane action and memorable moments. It definitely will stand up to repeat viewings, and thankfully this DVD is strong enough to support the film – superb video, excellent audio and a selection of genuinely good extras. All in all, this is an essential disc for everyone's collection.

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