Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Might as well get this out of the way right now: I've never seen El Mariachi. And I've only seen about twenty minutes or so of Desperado, and I didn't like it. So I'm not entirely sure why I was looking forward to this movie as much as I was...but I bet it had something to do with Johnny Depp. Though I've always admired his work, I've never big the biggest of Depp fans until this summer, when Pirates of the Caribbean dropped and Jack Sparrow blew everyone away. So I found myself highly intrigued in his follow-up, which also happened to be the final film in Robert Rodriguez's "El Mariachi" trilogy.

And maybe my Depp focus had something to do with my opinion of the final product, but once again, this movie belongs to Johnny. Sure, his Sands (a CIA operative) is really just a supporting character, but Depp's performance is spellbinding. When he's onscreen, the movie crackles with life; when he's off, you're waiting for him to come back.

I could try to tell you the plot, but I really couldn't discern much of it myself. Sands hires the legendary El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) to hit a Mexican general (Gerardo Vigil). El, as he's called ("as in the," Sands is told), already has a good reason to waste the guy: he killed his wife (Salma Hayek) and his daughter. But Sands wants El to kill him only after the general as already killed the President of Mexico (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.) in an attempted coup. Somehow, another Mexican general (Willam Dafoe) ties into all of this, as does a one-eyed man (Cheech Marin), a retired FBI agent (Ruben Blades), and a little dog belonging to Mickey Rourke.

It's nearly impossible to follow, but Rodriguez keeps it moving along fairly quickly. Rodriguez is the cinematic equivalent of Trent Reznor -- he directed the film, wrote the script, operated the camera, composed the music, and edited the picture himself (or, as he terms it in the opening credits, "shot, chopped and scored"). And while it's impressive to see someone take that much control over a film (when the credit says "A Robert Rodriguez Flick," it's the truth), the film suffers a bit from that single-mindedness. Sometimes, collaboration can be a good thing; another writer, for instance, may have been able to convince him to thin out -- or at least clarify -- his narrative. Rodriguez is all alone, essentially creating this film in his garage, and it has the self-indulgent feel of someone operating without a bullshit detector.

If it sounds like I'm writing the film off, I'm not. Once Upon a Time in Mexico really is a blast. The action scenes are a lot of fun, even if I wasn't always certain why the various people were trying to kill one another, and they haven't the slightest touch of The Matrix in them anywhere, to my great relief. Banderas has a smothering intensity that perfectly embodies his character, and Mickey Rourke manages to get a lot more mileage than you'd think he could out of carrying around a little dog.

But I keep coming back to Depp. There's something about him: standing there, watching a bullfight, wearing a CIA t-shirt, Sands commands the attention of the audience. He's funny, he's dangerous, and he's probably a little bit insane...Sands, I mean, not Depp. But this character is so much fun that the rest of the movie actually suffers in comparison -- I like Willem Dafoe as much as the next guy, but he's totally forgotten about the second he leaves the frame, while Sands becomes what truly makes Mexico worth watching. Technically, I think he's supposed to be a bad guy (who can tell with this script?), but I was rooting for him all the way.

So Robert Rodriguez may have done everything on this picture short of painting the sets and acting as chauffeur, but Johnny Depp wanders onto the screen and steals it all for himself. It may be a "Robert Rodriguez Flick," but it's a Johnny Depp picture. Somebody give this man an Oscar.

Rating: ***1/2

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