Fri, Nov 21, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Guitar in hand and revenge deep in the heart

`Once Upon a Time in Mexico' is more music video than movie, with flashy editing but little story or purpose

By A. O. SCOTT  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Judging from the opening credits of Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Robert Rodriguez, whose antic spirit also animates the Spy Kids franchise, is both becomingly modest and a bit of a control freak. The movie, the latest in his series of gaudy post-modern folk ballads about a gun-toting guitarist (Antonio Banderas) known mainly as El (as in the), is unassumingly presented as a Robert Rodriguez flick. His technical contributions are enumerated in similarly stripped-down lingo. The credits for cinematography, editing and music are summed up as follows: shot, chopped and scored by Robert Rodriguez. This is sufficiently unusual -- and impressive -- to make the "written and directed by" credit seem like an afterthought.

Unfortunately, the movie itself confirms this impression. Rodriguez has a feverish, inventive eye, and an ability to infuse digital video, so often flat and grainy, with uncommon depth and luster. He can chop together an action sequence with eye-popping flair, and his soundtrack music, with its flamenco whispers and heavy metal screeches, is pretty good, too.

The only thing missing is a coherent story -- or even, for that matter, an interesting idea for one. Even by the applicable standards of pulpy B-movie chaos, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which opens today, is a noisy, unholy mess, with moments of wit and surprise that ultimately make its brutal tedium all the more disappointing.

In Hollywood in the middle months this year, wit and surprise are pretty much synonymous with Johnny Depp. Here, instead of the eyeliner he wore in Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp sports a variety of sunglasses, as well as different styles of facial hair when the moment suits. His character is a rogue CIA agent stationed in Mexico: if his disguises, which include a prosthetic, spoon-clutching extra arm, didn't tip you off, then his T-shirt emblazoned with CIA in large letters might. This is only one of several gag garments he wears: another shirt says "I'm With Stupid," with an arrow pointing downward, and yet another says, "Yo Quiero Taco Bell."

Film Notes:

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Written, directed and edited by: Robert Rodriguez

Starring: Antonio Banderas (El Mariachi), Salma Hayek (Carolina), Johnny Depp (Sands), Mickey Rourke (Billy), Eva Mendes (Ajedrez), Danny Trejo (Cucuy), Enrique Iglesias (Lorenzo), Marco Leonardi (Fideo), Cheech Marin (Belini)

Running time: 110 minutes

Taiwan Release: Today


Speaking of which, the chihuahua who hawked that fast food chain's products so unavoidably a few years ago has apparently come out of retirement, though he does not, thankfully, have any lines. The dog is cradled in the loving arms of Mickey Rourke, who has been enjoying a bit of a comeback himself lately and pops up here in the middle of an intricate web of vendettas, double-crosses and well-known actors amusing themselves with big guns and funny accents.

And for a while, you might also find yourself amused by, in addition to Depp's precision riffing, Banderas's mannered soulfulness, by Willem Dafoe's thinly sliced jamon, by the many-gun salutes to Sergio Leone and John Woo, and by Salma Hayek's bellybutton. Hayek appears, throwing knives and sultry glances, in a series of flashbacks that are meant to explain El's vengeful state of mind. It seems she was his true love, done in by an unscrupulous rival, who is now involved in an elaborate plot to stage a coup d'etat against the portly, courtly Mexican president, the mastermind of which is a diabolical drug kingpin (Dafoe). And the plot of this shaggy-dog shoot-'em-up is no less elaborate (and thoroughly nonsensical), drawing in a retired FBI agent (Ruben Blades), a duplicitous Mexican Federale (Eva Mendes) and sundry other heavies and jefes.

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