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(2003) (Antonio Banderas, Johnny Depp) (R)

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Action/Adventure: A gun-toting mariachi wants revenge on a corrupt general who, along with a drug kingpin, has drawn the attention of U.S. government agents concerned about an attempted overthrow of the Mexican President.
Sands (JOHNNY DEPP) is a covert CIA agent working in Mexico who wants to make sure that drug lord Barillo (WILLEM DAFOE) doesn't manage to overthrow the President (PEDRO ARMENDARIZ) in a military coup that's to be staged by General Marquez (GERARDO VIGIL).

Accordingly, he sends his local "muscle," Cucuy (DANNY TREJO), to round up the enigmatic and legendary El Mariachi (ANTONIO BANDERAS) to assassinate the military leader. He and his wife, Carolina (SALMA HAYEK), had a bad run in with Marquez in the past and El Mariachi now wants to get his revenge.

At the same time, Sands has dealings with Mexican AFN agent Ajedrez (EVA MENDES) and tries to persuade retired FBI agent Jorge Ramirez (RUBÉN BLADES) to get his revenge on Barillo for previously torturing the agent's past partner. To do so, he'll have to deal with the drug lord's right-hand man, Billy Chambers (MICKEY ROURKE), a criminal fugitive from America.

As all of that is set into motion, El Mariachi and his fellow gun-toting guitar players, Lorenzo (ENRIQUE IGLESIAS) and Fideo (MARCO LEONARDI), set out to find and kill both Marquez and Barillo before their coup is successful.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Although I don't know if he'll ever accomplish it - his track record so far is not promising - but I would love to see the day when a film by Robert Rodriguez sweeps the Oscars. That isn't because he's labored for decades churning out films where he had limited control and thus deserves it. Instead, it's simply because he had complete control over them and would thus have to bring a small suitcase for the statuettes since he fills just about every position available outside of actually appearing in his films.

In his latest release, that returns him back to the storyline that initially garnered Hollywood's attention, Rodriguez (who also helmed the "Spy Kids" movies) not only serves as writer, director and producer, but also as the cinematographer, production designer, editor, visual effects supervisor, re-recording mixer and composer.

He either's a control freak or just loves every aspect of filmmaking. Whatever the case, Rodriguez's handiwork and touch are evident all over "Once Upon a Time in Mexico." The follow-up to 1995's "Desperado," which itself was an extended remake of his ultra-low budget (as in $7,000) first feature, "El Mariachi" (1992), the film is a comic book style blend of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Tom Clancy and a host of other influences.

Played as a mixture of comedy (often blackened) and pedal to the metal action, the picture is a busy hit or miss affair. As such, it should please fans of the filmmaker's "trilogy," but might just be too messy, uneven and violent for most everyone else.

With a bigger budget and more impressive cast than its predecessor, the film is certainly more ambitious in both visual style and storyline, although its success at either is debatable. The fun of the original 1992 film was that its overblown and hyperactive visuals fit in perfectly with its overall low budget look and attitude.

The mix didn't work as well in the higher budgeted "Desperado" and that problem carries over and is even more troublesome here. While there's plenty of style, not to mention fun visual effects and shots on hand, they do clash with the more "polished" production.

As far as the story of revenge, corruption and hired guns is concerned, it's more complicated than its predecessors but also unnecessarily more convoluted. Antonio Banderas ("Femme Fatale," "Original Sin"), Salma Hayek ("Frida," "Timecode"), Cheech Marin ("Tin Cup," "The Spy Kids" films) and Danny Trejo ("XXX," the "Spy Kids" films) return from the last film, although the latter two play different characters. Hayek only appears in flashback scenes designed to bridge the two films and show the catalyst and motivation for the mariachi's actions.

Brought in for the Clancy-esque international dealings of drug dealers and various forms of government agents are Johnny Depp ("Pirates of the Caribbean," "From Hell"), Rubén Blades ("Assassination Tango," "All the Pretty Horses"), Eva Mendes ("2 Fast 2 Furious," "Training Day"), Willem Dafoe ("Auto Focus," "Spider-Man") and Mickey Rourke ("The Pledge," "Get Carter").

Mendes isn't given much to do other than look and act tough in some tight-fitting attire, while Dafoe and Rourke are pretty much wasted as a drug cartel kingpin and his fugitive right-hand man who wants out of the business.

Blades is decent as a retired FBI agent who's goaded back into action, but it's Depp who gets the more entertaining role, at least in the film's first half. Occasionally equipped with a third, fake arm (played for comedic and violent effect) and a devil may care penchant for dispatching people both good and bad, Depp takes the role and runs with it. It's the sort of character and attitude he could now do in his sleep, but he adds a certain additional vitality to the effort and nearly overshadows Banderas' character.

Unfortunately, most of more "entertaining" moments disappear in the second half when Banderas - back in intense, gun-toting, guitar playing, folk hero mode - starts to take care of business. He's joined by Marco Leonardi ("Texas Rangers," "My Brother Jack") and crooner Enrique Iglesias in a decent debut performance as the other mariachi gunmen.

All sorts of violence - sometimes bloodless, sometimes gory, and often tinged with humor - then ensues. Rodriguez obviously loves to film such scenes and action aficionados will probably be in hog heaven by the time the last round of ammunition has been fired and the last body has hit the pavement.

I enjoyed parts of the film including the bits of humor, the first half of Depp's performance, and the film's arresting visual style. That said, and while I appreciate Rodriguez tackling most every role behind the camera, perhaps it's time to let some other needy film professionals step in and earn a paycheck.

While varying amounts of trimming and -- dare I say - a lower budget that would force more creativity like in his early days, Rodriguez could have had a far more entertaining and engrossing, if violent, effort on his hands. As it stands, "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," with all of its allusions to other westerns and related efforts, has its moments, but only rates as just a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 9, 2003 / Posted September 12, 2003

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