You don’t go to Robert Rodriguez movies for thoughtful narratives. About the deepest Rodriguez has ever gotten was his examination and redefinition of family in Spy Kids, or his posing the idea in Spy Kids II that maybe God no longer shows himself because he’s afraid of us. No, you go to a Rodriguez picture — or a “Robert Rodriguez Flick,” as Once Upon a Time in Mexico is cheekily labeled onscreen — to see the seemingly endless inventiveness of a master filmmaker drunk on the sheer joy of making movies in the same guerrilla-filmmaking style he’s used since his breakthrough 1992 indie, El Mariachi.
The original one-man band, Rodriguez writes, directs, photographs, edits, designs and scores his films virtually single-handedly (his new film boasts that it was “shot, chopped, and scored” by Rodriguez), making him the most self-contained filmmaker since Chaplin. In lesser hands, this kind of egomaniacal control often proves deadly. With Rodriguez, it’s usually pure delight — and it’s certainly a joy to report that he’s back in fine form after the relatively disappointing Spy Kids 3-D. In fact, this may well be his best movie yet.
Mexico is the third film in the trilogy that started with Rodriguez’s $7,000-budget El Mariachi (which, in all fairness, had a lot of post-production money dumped into it by Columbia when they decided to release the film) and continued with Desperado (which upped the ante to $3 million, and added Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin and Steve Buscemi to the mix). As such, the third installment had a pretty impressive lineage to live up to.
Since filmmaking buddy Quentin Tarantino told Rodriguez that his El Mariachi films were the modern equivalent of the Sergio Leone “spaghetti” westerns of the ’60s and ’70s, it was only natural that the final film take its cue from a Leone title (Once Upon a Time in the West). The Leone comparison is not inapt on other levels, though in all honesty, I find Rodriguez’s work better paced, more viscerally involving and a whole lot more fun than anything Leone ever made.
Mexico is like a gloriously overproduced B movie on acid (in fact, it seems as much playfully influenced by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal Santa Sangre as anything of Leone’s). The film is loud, fast, gorgeously shot (on digital high-definition video) and brimming with bright pop-art colors. It’s also deliberately and defiantly absurd — not in the least because it’s ultimately a Spy Kids movie for adults. Rodriguez has channeled the latter franchise’s over-the-top goofiness into a wildly violent — sometimes pretty gory — fairy tale for grownups.
Mexico is a movie where you find a character expressing his distaste for torture based on having once been subjected to it himself (and losing his left testicle in the process), concluding that this “pretty much put me off the whole idea.” Whether it can properly be called a sequel to Desperado is kind of up in the air, despite its repeating characters, though it really doesn’t matter very much. Mexico is certainly a continuation of — and maybe even a rethinking of — the El Mariachi myth of a quietly intense gun-and-guitar-brandishing troubadour (Banderas at his best).
The question inevitably arises as to how fast and loose Rodriguez plays with the stories he’s presented thus far. The new film definitely presents either an alternate series of events, or one that took place between Desperado and Mexico‘s present — or, in some cases, it presents a fever dream of things that may not have happened at all. The film’s cockeyed beauty is that it’s all so engagingly done that you probably won’t care — you’re largely content to let the creative anarchy rain down on you.
It helps, of course, that Rodriguez managed to assemble a great cast to bring his fantasy to life. Casting Johnny Depp as Sands, the very wigged-out CIA agent who wanders his Mexican beat in search of El Mariachi (in order to bring down a drug lord and throw a monkey wrench into plans to stage a coup) and the perfect incarnation of a local pork dish was a stroke of pure pop genius. This makes Depp’s second triumph in one year — and while it lacks the outrageous flamboyance of his Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, his Sands exhibits a kind of quiet flamboyance that may well stick with you longer. From the moment Depp silently mouths, “Oh, yes, I would,” to Cheech Marin’s remark, “You wouldn’t kill me over $10,000,” you know you’re in the presence of a unique talent at the top of his game.
That, in fact, neatly describes just about everybody involved in this movie — on both sides of the camera. And that’s not something that can be said of too many films.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke