He glowers seductively, lingers in shadows, and clangs a little when he walks (this owing to the silver epaulets on his trousers). He’s the legendary Guitar Fighter, returning once more to reap vengeance, save Mexico, and complete Robert Rodriguez’s increasingly complex and well-financed Mariachi trilogy. If not exactly long-awaited, Once Upon a Time in Mexico arrives in theaters thanks in part to Quentin Tarantino: according to the film’s own lore, Rodriguez was encouraged to this completion by his good friend, who likens the series to Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name Westerns.
The comparison may not be so farfetched as it sounds, even if it is premature. The Mariachi series begins with El Mariachi (1992, newly released in a handsome Special Edition DVD), which Rodriguez infamously made for just $7,000 (see his charming book on the subject, Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker With $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player), and which starred Carlos Gallardo. Wise beyond his years, the reluctant and shockingly super-skilled killer became a centerpiece for Rodriguez’s only partly ironic homage to the construction of legends, cultures, and nations, a witty riff on how heroes accommodate their moments.
The next installment, 1995’s Desperado, cost a lot more money to make, introduced Antonio Banderas as the charismatically gloomy hero (explained as the dead first version’s vengeance-seeking brother), not so much providing a sequel as reprising the tale on a bigger, more colorful canvas. Reprising the role here, Banderas brings a combination of swaggery action and grim humor to the man called “El (as in ‘the’).” As in the first two films, Once Upon a Time begins with some storytelling, enhanced by the sweatily low-key stylings of Belini (Cheech Marin, who heard the story last time from Steve Buscemi) as much as by Rodriguez’ spectacularly composed images (shot on agile high definition video). And in case there’s any doubt, the film credits announce that Once Upon a Time is “shot, chopped, and scored,” as well as written and directed by the man himself; Mr. Spy Kids is showing off his accumulated knowledge of his business.
As before, the storyteller speaks in a dimly lit, red-walled Mexican bar, for a skeptical listener, here CIA Agent Sands (Johnny Depp, in yet another weirdly nimble, exquisite performance — even as a shady CIA guy who’s trying to maneuver all ends against each other, he’s utterly endearing). After hearing all about how the Mariachi won’t tolerate roguish behavior, how he shot up a joint with implacable grace, and how he was perfectly matched with the stunning and lethal Carolina (Salma Hayek, who appears with precious little dialogue, only in flashbacks — flawlessly lit and framed, of course). At the tale’s end, Sands leans back and mutters in an odd little voice, “Welllll, that is truly unbelievable,” neatly articulating the movie’s primary theme — the interconnectedness between what is true and what is unbelievable.
Sands pays off Belini with a “Clash of the Titans” lunchbox full of money (in other words, not much), in exchange for info on where to find the Mariachi, whom he wants to hire, he says, to kill El’s very own arch-enemy, the preternaturally vicious General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil), who happens to be responsible for Carolina’s death (and yes, that episode appears in poetic, slow-motion flashback, in order to motivate his cataclysmic violence). Sands has his wheels in motion, and here’s no stopping them or him: when he instructs Cucuy (Danny Trejo) to fetch the Mariachi and Cucuy hesitates, Sands gathers up his small frame and huffs a bit to look imposing: “Are you a Mexican,” he hisses, or a Mexi-cant!?” With that kind of challenge, you know the mission will be accomplished.
The film is chucky full of motley stereotypical characters, some more interesting than others, all oversized in their ways: the drug kingpin Barillo (Willem Dafoe) is attended by the exiled-to-Mexico Billy (Mickey Rourke in still another offbeat cameo, wearing a scrunched-up cowboy hat much like the one he had in Spun and carrying a Chihuahua whose reaction shots are more emotive than almost anyone else in the film); the AFN agents, including Sands’ cynical bedmate, Special Agent Ajedrez (Eva Mendes); the ineffectual Presidente (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.) and his by-definition disloyal lackey Omar (Rodolfo De Alexandre); and an ex-FBI agent, Jorge (Rubén Blades), languishing in Mexico after never capturing Barillo, who tortured his partner for two weeks, a fact with which Sands goads him out of retirement (“Doesn’t that tug on your old short curlies?” he grins). To Sands, everyone is always just another piece on the CIA’s giant chessboard.
The gorgeous Mariachi is surely the film’s dynamic soul, as he endeavors to stay a step ahead of those who would exploit his pain and loyalties, alternately brooding, planning jobs with his homeboy mariachis and “sons of Mexico” (Lorenzo [Enrique Iglesias, who does fine] and Fideo [Marco Leonardi]), and leaping into action. Still, every time he turns around, there is the American who would ruin Mexico, double-crossing everyone and every ostensible ideal in sight: indeed, during one oddball scene, Sands pops up in El’s church, playing father-confessor as Marlon Brando (his much-admired buddy from Don Juan DeMarco ), as he half-whines, half-whispers, “There’s plenty of dough floating around,” his version of enticement.
As adroitly as it is delivered, it remains enticement that can’t possibly work with this mark. But Sands is cocky, presuming he’s in control until he learns that he can’t possibly be, and even then he holds his own, transformed into a cunning mythic figure in his own right. Whenever the film feels like it has too much going on, which it does frequently, or, near its end, strains to tie its many plots together, Sands (and really, Depp) returns it to a semblance of coherence, as if by sheer will alone. “Just walkin’ my beat, friend,” he reports into his cell phone during one of his many cell phone machinations, “Mexico’s my beat, and I’m walkin’ it.”
This moment too makes thematic and political points, in ways that extend beyond the grand legend of the lonely Mariachi. Fighting to sustain his nation against the cartels, the U.S., and the persistently corrupt military, El and his many adversaries confront one another (or someone, somewhere) during a huge Day of the Day showdown. The elaborate skull costumes, floats, and puppets grant cover for the street battles, and it can be hard to know who’s shooting whom, like in most any battle for a national and communal identity. Justly punished for his interference, arrogance, and insistent “vision,” Sands can no longer see what’s going on.