Once Upon a Time in Mexico

By Adam Lippe

ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO“That, my friend, is cowardice. It’s so yellow. It’s not even yellow, it’s beyond yellow. It’s canary yellow… Rodeo clowns, on the other hand, those are real men. I had a buddy from Austin, he was a rodeo clown. He had one arm. We used to call him, uh… One arm.” – Johnny Depp, at a bullfight, wearing a CIA shirt.

Above is a deleted scene from Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which suggests that what made it into the movie is even better. This is true of the first 8 or 9 minutes, which are wonderfully over the top and funny, but as soon as writer/director/editor/zoologist Robert Rodriguez attempts to tell the story, he gets lost.

Within the extra material on the DVD, Rodriguez explains that he pitched the movie without a script, and then rushed through the script in four or five days, clearly not worrying (or noticing) the glaring plot problems he produced. He brought together a tremendous cast and then left them swinging in the wind, with vague mysteries to their characters that don’t have enough intrigue to explore further. Consider the following:

bladesrourkeWhy is Mickey Rourke always hiding his dog from Willem Dafoe? How does Ruben Blades know who Antonio Banderas is at the end of the film? They’re in completely different movies. What exactly is going on with Eva Mendes? She’s not with Johnny Depp, who’s working against the CIA anyway, but she’s working for herself, or for the FBI, or something.

Dafoe is given nothing to do, and his goals are never quite clear. A blinded Depp has an amusing showdown with two villians, but did no one realize that those are the henchman at the entrance of where he needs to go? What does killing those guys do for him?

case-once-upon-a-timeObviously, as with the previous films in the series El Mariachi and Desperado, Robert Rodriguez can improvise from a technical standpoint, but dialogue and character development are not his strong suit, so the actors just flounder here.

I could have done without Dafoe, Blades, Rourke and concentrated on Depp, Banderas, and his mates. You could easily lose 60% of the material of Blades following Rourke around, just to include the deleted line by Depp at the bull fight, wearing his CIA shirt.

Honestly, I wouldn’t have minded if there had been more non-sensical action, and less muddled story. The proof is in the amazing trailer (something else that it shares with Desperado). As Ebert often says, “When a bad movie produces a great trailer, it’s usually evidence that the raw materials were there for a good movie.”

But the entire movie smacks of a rushed compromise. A perfect example is Rodriguez’s choice to frame the movie at 2.35 (it was one of the first films shot entirely on HD video), emulating the Spaghetti Westerns he is obviously tipping his hat to [and stealing from]. However, on the DVD, Rodriguez has reframed the entire movie to 1.78 just to appease those who want their widescreen TVs filled with an image. Way to sell out your vision for people who don’t care about filmmaking anyway.

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Overall I kind of wish that Rodriguez had stuck with his model for the first two Spy Kids movies, which were both masterpieces of silly action and inventiveness, rather than the western/John Woo mish-mash which felt rather tired here. The charm of Desperado is not in the revamping of cliches, but the suavity at an arm’s length style, the cool with which Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek held themselves, something there is a significant dearth of in Mexico.

1 comment on “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”


  1. phillyphife says:

    Love the review – I’m running out to rent Spy Kids, thanks. I admire not so much the movies of Robert Rodriguez but his one-man-band workflow – the no-net approach of a technically skilled improvising musician that is always daring and fun to experience despite the finished work’s ultimate success or failure.

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On Cold Fish:

Though the 16 year old me described the 1994 weepie Angie, starring Geena Davis as a Brooklyn mother raising her new baby alone, as “maudlin and melodramatic,” Roger Ebert, during his TV review, referring to the multitude of soap-operaish problems piling up on the titular character, suggested that it was only in Hollywood where Angie would get a happy ending. “If they made this movie in France, Angie would have shot herself.”

Well Cold Fish was made in Japan, where Angie would have shot herself and that would have been the happy ending.