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Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Deadly Guitars, Part Three

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The title, naturally, is a nod to Once Upon the Time in the West, Sergio Leone's legendary 1965 revisionist Western epic. But it also alerts the viewer that the story may be a manly sort of fairy tale. Early on, petty criminal Bellini (Cheech Marin), while relating the history of noted gunslinger El Mariachi, admits the story has likely been embellished for entertainment purposes.

Director Robert Rodriguez (who also scripted, co-produced, edited, shot and scored Once Upon a Time in Mexico, or so the story goes) knows the power of legend. He burst on the indie scene in 1992 with El Mariachi, a surprise hit about a musician mistaken for a gunman, allegedly shot for $7,000. In 1995, Rodriguez made a big-budget update-cum-sequel, Desperado. And now, part three -- the continuing adventures of the musical pistolero.

El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas, slipping back into his Desperado duds) is lured out of retirement by the machinations of crooked CIA operative Sands (Johnny Depp). Sands needs somebody to sabotage the assassination of El Presidente that cartel honcho Barrillo (Willem Dafoe, painted brown) is orchestrating. El Mariachi rustles up his "band" -- Marco Leonardi and Enrique Iglesias, guitar strummers who casually tote small arsenals in their instrument cases -- to thwart Barrillo. A half-dozen subplots complicate this scenario -- notably retired FBI agent Ruben Blades, hit man Danny Trejo (the scariest visage in cinema), sexy cop Eva Mendes, and ambivalent Barrillo aide-de-camp Mickey Rourke.

The film is constructed as an homage to and riff on the conventions not just of Leone's sprawling shoot-'em-ups, but of Rodriguez's own El Mariachi canon. I thought it just might work ... then the bodies started piling up. It's tricky to combine smirky insider humor with brutal killings, however cartoonishly executed. Having a quirky character deadpan that because the food is too good he must shoot the cook is funny; following him into the kitchen and watching as he, without warning, shoots the cook point blank, is simply gratuitous.

Plenty of people get shot, garroted or pulverized between speeding cars, and I soon lost track of why in Rodriguez's self-conscious po-mo world of good-guys-turned-bad and vice versa and back again. Flashbacks ostensibly reveal El Mariachi's motivations -- why he has shifted from peaceful to vengeful -- but in a film this flashy and surface-oriented, who really cares? Mostly, these sojourns backward serve to shoehorn in Salma Hayek's small supporting role as the erstwhile Mrs. El Mariachi.

Other than the fact that Rodriguez shot the film on digital video, there's not much fresh here. The speeded-up, slowed-down, chip-chopped action; the shoot first, quip later approach to justice; the A-list actors slumming as sweaty no-goodniks; the riffs on "classic" junk films -- it all feels very once upon a time in the early '90s. In English and Spanish with subtitles.


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