Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Film Review: ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO (2003, Robert Rodriguez)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 102 minutes.
Tag-line: "The Time Has Come."
Notable Cast or Crew: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Rubén Blades, Enrique Iglesias, Marco Leonardi.
Best one-liner: "Ok. Smoke him... Smoke the fucker! Send him straight to fucking Broadway."

Rodriguez's continued retellings of his "Sergio Leone by-way-of Walter Hill and John Woo" EL MARIACHI legend are like a monstrous, runaway snowball. And as it rolls downhill, it increases in speed, size, ludicrousity, and finally, by ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO, it's a completely deranged, rampaging behemoth full of eclectic actors, jaw-dropping setpieces, and a tangible joie de vivre that its contemporaries truly lack.

Here's 10 reasons why ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO rises above the muck of your typical 00's action flick and is worthy of your time:

#1. Some movies will, at times, splash a little blood or water on the lens. I think it's meant to amplify the grittiness, but for me it intensifies the disconnect- 'I'm watching a movie.' Rodriguez goes a step further: during a desert dirt bike chase, some cacti get blasted and the lens is spattered with cactus juice, which I have no choice but to wholeheartedly support.

#2. Mickey Rourke (and his l'il doggie). Now this is 21st Century Rourke (fossilized skin, gravelly voice, and every third word is "goddamn") at his finest.

His purple suits are not costumes- they're from his personal wardrobe. He exudes actual pathos, and in the course of a few brief scenes builds a relationship with his little chihuahua buddy that's more genuine and touching than anything from a weepie picture.

#3. Depp and his kitschy accoutrements.

From a CLASH OF THE TITANS lunchbox to an 'I'm With Stupid' t-shirt to the fanny packs, the fake 'staches, and the shorts n' blazer combo, Depp's attire is a testament to the inspired lunacy of the man himself.

Only on set for a few days, Depp hand-picked his own wardrobe from the festering aisles of tacky, border-town thrift shops and proceeded to unleash a hurricane of loopy, Brando-style improvisation, supposedly inspired by an anonymous, eccentric Hollywood mover and shaker who Depp always imagined "wore really cheesy tourist shirts, had a sideline obsession with Broadway, and favored strange, obvious disguises."

The end result is nothing short of astonishing, and 'Agent Sands' surely belongs on the short list of great characters in contemporary action cinema.

#4. Banderas' brutal double low-blow, worthy of Leo Fong. You'll know it when you see it.

Banderas' look says it all: he takes brutal ball-squeezing very seriously.

I'm sad to say, however, that the duration still compares unfavorably to THE EVIL THAT MEN DO.

#5. Willem Dafoe.

Scary with a mustache. Scary in silk shirts. Scary behind bandages. So scary, even Danny Trejo has got the heebie-jeebies, which is really saying something. Hell, he's even freaking out his döppelganger.

It's nearly a throwaway role- one in a parade of villainous entities- but we all know that Dafoe doesn't require a majority of screen-time to be terrifying as all get out.


#6. This camera angle.

Sometime between the ribaldry of classic 70's action cinema (BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, ROLLING THUNDER, et al.) and the present day, Hollywood moved from "gritty South American hooker in a smoke den with peeling paint" sleaze to "corporate, collagen, plasticine, air-brushed to oblivion" sleaze. And, frankly, I find the latter kind of disturbing. Regardless, while Eva Mendes certainly wouldn't belong in a Peckinpah flick, this camera-angle, and what it represents- an unrepentant, 'let's-call-a-spade-a-spade' style of bawdiness– is refreshing.

#7. "Are you a Mexi-CAN or a Mexi-CAN'T?"

#8. Cheech Marin.

Well, he missed out on the first EL MARIACHI movie, so I suppose he tried to make up for it by subsequently playing seven roles in seven Rodriguez flicks- a feat more impressive than it sounds, given that 5 of those films belong to ongoing series (3 SPY KIDS and 2 EL MARIACHI films). Here, he's amusingly long-winded and has got an eye patch, and that's really all you need to know.

#9. Rubén Blades. He's not the flashiest performer here. He's not an ex-con like Danny Trejo, a funnyman like Cheech Marin, a pop star like Enrique Iglesias, or a petrified, walking cautionary tale like Mickey Rourke.

He's low-key. He's convincing. And Rodriguez outfits him with a story arc that's well worth our time. In a film that's a whirling vortex of over-the-top yarns, off-kilter character actors, and reeling action set-pieces, Blades is that grounding dose of subtlety that really ties it all together.

#10. The finale: an eyeless gunslinger who makes Zatoichi look like Mr. Magoo, Banderas surfing down a staircase on his guitar, PREDATOR 2 references, and endless one-liners- life is good.

Nearly five stars. And while I surely wouldn't say no to a fourth EL MARIACHI flick, I'm not sure how Rodriguez could possibly escalate upon the bedlam contained herein without it collapsing under its own weight...

-Sean Gill

6. BLIND FURY (1989, Philip Noyce)
7. HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951, John Farrow)
8. HIGH SCHOOL U.S.A. (1983, Rod Amateau)
9. DR. JEKYLL AND MS. HYDE (1995, David Price)
11. 1990: BRONX WARRIORS (1982, Enzo G. Castellari)
12. FALLING DOWN (1993, Joel Schumacher)
13. TOURIST TRAP (1979, David Schmoeller)
14. THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973, Richard Lester)
15. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986, John Carpenter)
16. TOP GUN (1986, Tony Scott)
17. 48 HRS. (1982, Walter Hill)
18. ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO (2003, Robert Rodriguez)
19. ...


Simon said...

Go Agent Sands.

This is among the only movies I'll tolerate Eva Mendes, who seems to maybe be acknowledging herself or something here.

J.D. said...

Yeah, this film was definitely Rodriguez's magnum opus up to that point (replaced probably by PLANET TERROR where he really gets his Carpy fanboy thang on!). I haven't watched it in ages but remember loving it for its sheer outrageousness. That's what I love about Rodriguez, he isn't afraid to just go for it with a balls-out ludicrous action film. The man certainly wears his influences on his sleeve and proudly so. It was quite amazing how he got all of these stellar actors to appear in this film and let their collective freak flags fly free. Huzzah!

Sean Gill said...


I'll also give her a free pass in BAD LIEUTENANT, though in the midst of such insanity she was hardly a highlight.


Agreed re: Rodriguez. When I first saw this, it was in a dingy $2 discount theater in Ohio. The audience wasn't too large to begin with, but they began to file out as the film progressed and I found myself the only one laughing and feeling a bit like Sam Neill at the end of IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. I thought it was something special at the time, and I'd say it has certainly held up. (Naturally, I paid another $2 and saw it again the next day!)