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"Are you a Mexican... or a Mexican't?"
 
 
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Once Upon A Time In Mexico
cast: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke, and Willem Dafoe

writer and director: Robert Rodriguez

97 minutes (15) 2003
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Columbia Tristar DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Christopher Geary
SPOILER ALERT!
El Mariachi (1992) was the film debut of director Rodriguez, a young man from Texas, who shot that cult feature in a fortnight on location down in Mexico for a paltry $7,000 (yes, indeed - that's the correct number of zeros, only one comma is required!). It's a story of mistaken identity, tragic romance, and imaginatively staged action scenes. Desperado (1995) is really just a bigger-budgeted English language remake, with new Hollywood stars Antonio Banderas, as glamorously macho mariachi bandleader and preternaturally capable gunfighter, and Salma Hayek as the sultry Carolina. Unlike its predecessor, this glossier version has a happier ending, too. Nine years on, Banderas and Hayek both reprise their roles in this latest spectacular revision of the increasingly mythical tale - Once Upon A Time In Mexico. As with Desperado, this picture opens with a scene-setting Mexican bar storyteller (here, Desperado's bartender Cheech Marin is promoted to Steve Buscemi's role) narrating the antics of El Mariachi, succinctly described as a legendary modern folk hero - something like a deadly Mexican equivalent of Mad Max...
   When he finally appears, Banderas actually fulfils our expectations. He's great as this freshly re-minted yet iconic character: laconic, brooding, invulnerable and irresistibly magnetic, he dominates the screen without effort, so the villains seem (even Willem Dafoe and Mickey Rourke) pale by comparison. Only Johnny Depp, here playing an undercover federal agent with three arms (who, during one of his several amusing scenes, wears a T-shirt casually identifying him as CIA!) has the star presence to match our hero. The plot revamps, rehashes, rewrites and further exploits that popular milieu of non-Hollywood westerns, the semi-mythical lands of revolutionary Mexico. Although set in the present day, with a retired FBI agent finding his 'lost' gangster enemy (Rourke), and an American spy armed (literary!) with all manner of clever gadgets, inadvertently teaming up with the super-heroic mariachi band to protect the incumbent Mexican president from a military coup d'état, Once Upon A Time In Mexico is a fanboy tribute to classics such as Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), and Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969). What Rodriguez' film lacks in studiously epic length or critical acclaim, it makes up for with sheer cinematic verve, pulp fictional imagination and appealing wit.
   Despite its reported production difficulties and two-year delay for its theatrical release, the film's confusion of plot threads, intentionally comic characterisations and romanticised flashbacks, hardly matters. Its story content doesn't often make sense, lacking either clarity or coherence, but this is mostly a film of livewire style and resonant anecdotes on criminal ambition, heroic vengeance and ironic twists. It's no use arguing how director Rodriguez' DIY approach (he's cinematographer, film editor and composer, too!) to movies is clumsy or frequently immature when he's so thrifty and unique. Just as Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy was the genre schlock answer to Romero's artfully metaphorical zombie shockers (Night... Dawn... Day Of The Dead), this largely frivolous adventure and its thematic predecessors offer nothing more or less than an enjoyably playful homage to respected masterworks of the western genre. Once Upon A Time In Mexico is not the greatest movie of its kind, but the critics attacking its scattershot affect would be advised to reconsider their negative comments in light of one particularly memorable scene in the film: the confrontation between two henchmen and the blinded shooter, which has the hero using their mocking laughter, over his wild spray of bullets, as a ready target for another burst of gunfire. Robert Rodriguez is a filmmaker, not a film reviewer - so who's laughing now?
   The DVD has Dolby digital 5.1 sound in English and Russian, with subtitles in English, Hindi and Russian. A sharp anamorphic transfer gets the very best from this movie's satisfactory 'high definition digital' camerawork. Disc extras include four featurettes: Inside Troublemaker Studios (11 minutes) - a whirlwind guided tour of Rodriguez' home studio, where the cutting-edge tech of his sound lab and editing suites enable the director to maintain the spontaneous creativity of a solo artist. Film Is Dead: An Evening With Robert Rodriguez (13 minutes) has edited highlights of the director's lecture espousing the merits of cheap digital shooting meshed with quickly produced special effects. There are worthwhile interviews in The Anti-Hero's Journey (18 minutes), revealing Rodriguez' experimental notion of making Once Upon A Time In Mexico as if it's the fourth movie in a series with 'flashbacks' to a non-existent third instalment!
   The Good, The Bad, & The Bloody: Inside KNB FX (19 minutes) details several gags with prosthetics, including the funny sequence in the bullring with a dummy matador. Rodriguez contributes two short films made for DVD. Fast, Cheap And In Control is a '10-minute flick school' offering more of the director's enthusiasm for WYSIWYG moviemaking "at the speed of thought," and there's also a 'cooking school' spot (watch out, Jamie Oliver!) as Rodriguez spends another 10 minutes showing us how to prepare his favourite pork dish.
   There's also an entertaining director's commentary track, deleted scenes with optional commentaries, filmographies for the director and main stars, trailers for the Mariachi trilogy, and the Banderas' vehicle The Mask Of Zorro, plus a couple of computer games in the DVD-ROM section.
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