Director Robert Rodriguez started his filmmaking career with 1992’s “El Mariachi,” a Spanish language action film that introduced a character and a trilogy. Three years later, Rodriguez continued his work with “Desperado,” and in 2003, he finished off the set with “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is re-releasing all three films on Blu-ray disc under the Columbia Pictures moniker.
The man behind the Mariachi Trilogy’s curtain, Rodriguez did a little bit of everything for “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” He directed, produced, wrote the script, oversaw the music, instructed the cinematography and edited the entire thing. You can’t fault his hard working attitude and effort, but you can fault his reliance on flashy, shiny and over the top elements. Halfway through, it’s difficult not to be exhausted.
Viewers meet a slick talking and overly cocky CIA agent named Sands (Johnny Depp) who manages to recruit El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) as a paid assassin. His mission: murder Marquez (Gerardo Vigil), a rebel army leader who is being paid big bucks by drug lord Barillo (Willem Dafoe) to kill Mexico’s President (Pedro Armendariz, Jr.). Just in case you’re new to this trilogy (and I am), flashbacks will tell you that some time ago, El Mariachi and his wife (Salma Hayek) stood up to Marquez in a gunfight and wounded him. This prompted retaliation that left El Mariachi’s wife and daughter dead.
Meanwhile, Sands is also able to bring retired FBI agent Ramirez (Ruben Blades) on board to murder Barillo (you see, Barillo killed Ramirez’s partner back in the day) while AFN agent Ajedrez (Eva Mendes) is sought out also, but only to follow everyone, especially Barillo, around. Oh, Barillo also has this American fugitive fellow named Chambers (Mickey Rourke) around for protection, while El Mariachi has his pals Lorenzo (Enrique Iglesias) and Fideo (Marco Leonardi) nearby for support.
In case it hasn’t become obvious yet, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” has a pretty solid cast. And, for the most part, they give pretty solid performances. Just remember that everything Rodriguez does is over the top, so audiences that anticipate overacting will be dead on here. Also, both Hayek and Mendes are made out to reinforce the over sexualized Latina stereotypes that linger in racial contexts. They wear either skimpy or tight (sometimes both) clothing, always draw attention and appear incapable of taking initiative or action without direction or guidance from a male character.
I mentioned earlier that “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” relies on flashy, shiny and over the top elements. I did not mention its reliance on violence. It’s safe to say that every single character mentioned above is either involved in a gunfight, gets shot/killed or has to run from someone who is about to shoot/kill them. Blood spews and flows freely, as do bodies through the air. It seems the laws of gravity were given a vacation while Rodriguez made his film. Guns and explosions are aplenty, too, and none of our heroes ever run out of ammo.
“Once Upon a Time in Mexico” strikes me as a film that can be both over and under analyzed. On the one hand, it’s basically a violent splatterfest that has recognizable faces all together simultaneously. They converse, there’s a twist or two, a few people get what’s coming to them and life goes on. Yet on the other hand, the protagonist is an anti-hero who, in order to overcome his own demons and finally find his own unique peace, needs multiple pieces from a complex puzzle all to fall into place. Controlling all the puppet strings is Depp, a man who thinks he can change the cards he’s been dealt, yet in reality can only amend how he plays the hand. However shallow or deep you wish to dig, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” won’t ever suffer from minimal edginess or minor entertainment value. No doubt it’s a fun ride, but I question the value its experience possesses.
The film’s casting is a cultural studies fan’s dream. Having real Latinos play Latino characters might seem like a logical concept, but Hollywood is notorious for messing up who from what racial or ethnic classification belongs where. The error in “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” isn’t so much in who Rodriguez cast, but more so the fact that all these Latinos are all evil, violent, over sexualized or just plain immoral during his film. Everyone has a vice, is dishonest or gets into trouble along the way. Given the struggles across the United States/Mexican borderlands, it’s hard not to think “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” influenced how whites might view dark skinned Mexicans or Latin Americans. Of course, suggesting such a concept is one thing, but admitting it exists or actually talking about its impact are entirely separate beasts.
In its efforts to be flashy and adventurous, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” winds up pulling its viewers along entirely too hard. Its relentless pace will remind you of little indulgences in your life that, like similar films to this one, are good only in small doses.
Sony’s transfer to Blu-ray disc is unsurprisingly good, especially because Rodriguez relies on bright sunshine and excessive but not wasteful coloration for “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” Things come through very clearly and vividly from beginning to end with this 1.78:1 1080p High Definition image. Costume detail, facial imperfections and even dog collars are all sharp and crisp, while both standard and unconventional cinematography are in place to ground audiences before mixing them up. All in all, the Blu-ray picture quality is mighty good, perhaps because “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” was the first film that took Rodriguez away from film and to only digital HD.
As you’d anticipate from an action film, the sound is quite important. It traces gunfire and footsteps equally, yet doesn’t only let the big time noise shine. All vocals are audible with no effort in the film’s English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack. Characters occasionally whisper to themselves or each other, yet the sound effortlessly bounces from high fly action to low key conversation. This title will make any home theater system user appreciate his or her investment. Additional audio options include French and Portuguese 5.1 DTS-HD MAs, plus a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 (perhaps I’m in the minority here, but shouldn’t a Spanish language film have a DTS-HD MA option instead of just the standard Dolby Digital?) Subtitles offered are Spanish, English, Portuguese and French.
A neat little add on exclusive to Blu-ray is called “The Cutting Room,” where viewers can create and upload their own cut to BD-Live for others to check out. The film also features an audio commentary with director Rodriguez (he’s not afraid to tell you what’s on his mind, for sure), deleted scenes and six additional featurettes: “Ten-Minute Cooking School,” “Film is Dead: An Evening with Robert Rodriguez,” “The Good, the Bad and the Bloody: Inside KNB FX,” “Ten-Minute Flick School,” “Inside Troublemaker Studios” and “The Anti-Hero’s Journey.”
A Final Word:
Despite the thrills and fun, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” didn’t do for me what it did for others. It’s got potential to be just a fun film you watch now and again to be entertained, or a serious title you read into as it bookends a trilogy. Go as you please, but just remember that once in a while, the stuff that’s so blatantly in films to keep you happy can also be removed, and doing so might make you happier.