Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

That’s gotta be the coolest thing about creativity, is that it’s very unpredictable. You just sort of open yourself up to it, and things come to you, and you can almost not take credit for it.
— Robert Rodriguez, commentary track, Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Forgive me for what I am about to become.
— El (Antonio Banderas), Once Upon a Time in Mexico

If ever there was a filmmaker made for DVD commentaries, it is Robert Rodriguez, in love with process, technology, his crew and his budding-filmmaker-viewers. Just so, he introduces his latest, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, as if coming back to see old friends: “Hello,” he says as the Columbia logo comes on screen, “This is Robert Rodriguez, back for more musings. I think I do these commentaries… so that when I’m an old man, I can look back and see what the hell I was thinking. So, if you’re listening to this, I may be talking way too fast and saying way too much, but if you’re into methodology, you’ll get a lot of that here, as well as some really funny behind the scenes stories.”

This seems true, as much as anything a filmmaker might tell you can be true. He does talk fast, and he is into methods and how ideas come to him. Watching Johnny Depp first appear as Agent Sands, Rodriguez gushes, “This was the first scene I wrote, a corrupt CIA agent down in Mexico, sort of running the country by cell phone.” It’s a phenomenal concept, layered and smart and full of comedy and history. The mythology of Mexico in this movie — Rodriguez’s third film in his revisionary “Western” trilogy — takes on the ominous workings of U.S. intelligence, policy, and military industry as a matter of course. Let the nation building begin.

With all of its political and allegorical allusions, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is also local and immediate. Just so, Rodriguez’s commentary is focused for budding filmmakers. He extols the virtues of 1080p24 (the terrific looking high definition video he used) and the joys of working fast and cheap ($30 million) with other fast thinkers, like Depp (who suggested dressing Sands like a bad tourist), Cheech, and Quentin Tarantino (form who he took advice on writing dialogue: “I just get two characters talking to each other and then even I’m surprised by what they say”). He notes that he brings back actors whose previous character had been killed (“I did a complete Sergio Leone, and brought ’em back as different characters”), explaining that he likes to work with people who already know his style and especially, his speed.

Leone comes up repeatedly, not least obviously in the trilogy’s focus on a man with no name. El Mariachi glowers seductively, lingers in shadows, and clangs a little when he walks (this owing to the silver epaulets on his trousers). The Mariachi series begins with El Mariachi (1992), which Rodriguez infamously made for just $7,000 (see his engaging book, 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 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 one’s vengeance-seeking brother), not so much providing a sequel as reprising the tale on a more extravagant canvas. Reprising the role in Once, Banderas combines swaggery action and grim humor as the man called “El (as in ‘the’),” explains an associate. As in the first two films, Once begins with a scene of storytelling, this time by Belini (Cheech Marin, who heard the story last time from Steve Buscemi), narrating for the skeptical Sands (whose notorious third arm is even funnier on re-viewing). 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 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 (Rodriguez’s own supplies case), 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-can’t!?” With that kind of challenge, you know the mission will be accomplished.

The film is 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, wearing a scrunched-up cowboy hat 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, who is, Rodriguez says, “basically playing my uncle, a retired FBI agent who really did take down two Top-10 criminals”), 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 and curlies?” he grins; Rodriguez adds that Depp brought this dialogue to the character, granting him oddball language rather than the more usual cursing that Rodriguez had written). To Sands, everyone is just another piece on the CIA’s giant chessboard.

The gorgeous Mariachi remains 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, whose nervousness for his first film, Rodriguez says, was allayed by being able to see dailies instantly, courtesy of HD] 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 [1995]), 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 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.”

Sands is surely the film’s “most showy part,” as Rodriguez observes. His comments on various Sands scenes suggest his investment in the character and in working with the ingenious Depp (who, along with the HD cameras, is the newest element for the filmmaker, as he has done extensive commentaries for the first two Mariachi films). Glad to have Depp even for only eight days of shooting, Rodriguez thrills that he took it to “the next level, the next 10 levels.” Watching Sands in his CIA t-shirt at the bullfight (“Sometimes, Sands says, “A revolution is needed to clean up the system… Wanna know the secret to winning? Creative sportsmanship”), Rodriguez discusses his and Depp’s mutual aversion to bullfighting (“The bulls should win”).

As to the character’s “dramatic transformation” by film’s end, Rodriguez explains that he’s cobbled together from two different scripts, the second a sci-fi film about a man with no eyes. By film’s end, Sands has his eyes gouged out, blood frozen on his face gaping holes covered with sunglasses, as he continues to fight off his furious adversaries. For this “iconic” image, Rodriguez says he was inspired by a painting of Samson, pulling down the temple around him. As Sands “turns more Mexican,” speaking Spanish and understanding more about the culture around him (even coming to resemble the Day of the Dead masks that fill the streets around him), Rodriguez sees him as a potentially returning character, “The Man With No Eyes Returns: Once Upon a Time In Mexico 2.”

Along with this filmmaking commentary, Rodriguez has devised “Commentary Two,” about sound, with a music and isolated sound effect track to illustrate what he says. Encouraged by advice by Danny Elfman (“Go after the big numbers first”), he conjured characters’ themes first. He also discusses here the sound design, for instance in the scene where Carolina and El jump from the hotel window). The disc includes a number of featurettes, such as “10 Minute Flick School” (in which Rodriguez describes shooting, editing, and creating effects with high definition digital equipment, as when Carolina throws knives that aren’t there, or El slides down a stairway on cardboard and this is turned into “stunt” on screen); “Inside Troublemaker Studios” (a tour of his studio at home and in Austin, introduced with Rodriguez in his driveway [“Behind me is what used to be my garage”] and including demonstrations of his virtual sound-mixing board [“It’s a giant mouse”] and his own process [“I want you to see how quick this can be, because you move at the speed of thought, it gets you right at that creative essence, that creative spark”]); and “10 Minute Cooking School” (a recipe for Puerco Pibil, the pork dish that Sands so craves).

Other extras (and the stories become somewhat repetitive) are “Film Is Dead: An Evening with Robert Rodriguez” (speaking to an audience on the Sony Pictures lot, introducing Danny Trejo on stage: “This is an HD face”); “The Anti-Hero’s Journey” (about other Mariachi films); “The Good, the Bad, and the Bloody: Inside KNB FX” (concerning the wonders of high definition blood, and one FX guy’s observation of Rodriguez, “If he had the time, he’d probably handle every department”); and four deleted scenes.

The movie’s final moments are grandly political and comic at once. 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. And yet, he sees more than he ever has before.