Once Upon a Time in Mexico just goes to prove that you can give an actor the second billing even if they rarely appear and when they do, it’s only in flashbacks. In this case, it’s Salma Hayek’s character that I’m talking about, who isn’t actually present in the main story like you’d expect. She gets two action scenes, both of which are quite entertaining, but apart from them, she’s barely in this film. I mention this in case there are viewers who are only considering watching this because she’s in it (if there are people like that out there).
I also bring it up because it works as a nice way to begin talking about the casting, which is wholly more interesting than the rest of the film, just like it was in Desperado. Antonio Banderas is still our lead, a mariachi who spends most of his time killing other people instead of playing the guitar. Johnny Depp appears as the second most important character, a CIA agent named Sands, who hires the mariachi to kill General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil), who is planning to kill the Mexican President, as ordered by drug kingpin Barillo (Willem Dafoe).
That’s about as much of the plot as I could make out. Mickey Rourke shows up for a few scenes as Barillo’s bodyguard who always carries a dog in one arm, Eva Mendes plays an AFM operative who’s in cahoots with Agent Sands, while Danny Trejo is Sands’ bodyguard, insurance, or whatever role Sands wants him to take on. Some of these characters switch sides throughout, although the reasoning behind their decisions is sketchy at best. I’ll admit that I got lost in terms of the plot as a whole, but in the end, that doesn’t matter. It’s overly complex, or at least gives that illusion, but you’re here for the gunfights anyway.
At least director/writer/cinematographer/editor/composer Robert Rodriguez (and he probably had more roles too) tried this time around. The previous two films of this trilogy, El Mariachi and Desperado, didn’t have much of a plot, and gave us no reason to care. While the plot in this film is confusing, at least significant effort was put in crafting a narrative that will hold your interest, even if it’s just to keep you wondering just what’s going on at every turn. It shows growth as a filmmaker, although I think that the action scenes might have taken a step back as a result.
Yes, they’re still entertaining. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the action scenes have somehow become boring, but either I finally got tired of gunfight after gunfight, or maybe they just weren’t as inspired this time around. Instead, the most memorable moments in Once Upon a Time in Mexico involved Hayek and Banderas attempting to scamper down five stories of a building while handcuffed to one another. I won’t explain how it works, but it’s entertaining and awe-inspiring, even if it lasts slightly longer than it has a right to.
But the shootouts and the other times when guns are shooting at one another have gotten stale. After three films of this, I can understand how the creativity is gone. But a reason doesn’t forgive how uninspired they all feel. The saving grace of these scenes is Johnny Depp’s character, although he only gets a couple of these moments, with the rest of them involving characters that aren’t anywhere near as interesting.
Like its predecessors, Once Upon a Time in Mexico still doesn’t care one iota about its characters. They’re involved in a more complex plot this time, but development is still ignored in favor of more shootouts. If all you want is an action film, then you still won’t be disappointed. If you want deep characters, you’ll want to look elsewhere — at least, after you watch this film because it’s definitely worth the time it takes to finish it.
If there’s one thing to note, this is the first film in the trilogy not to focus almost solely on the mariachi. It’s more of an ensemble film that it previously has been, with his character relegated more to a side role. He still gets the most exciting action scenes, and he gets more screen time than anyone else, but there are times when he disappears completely for a while, as we wonder where he’s gone. The same is true of everyone else as well, which leads me to believe that a lot of footage was cut. It feels incomplete and unfocused, which may be the reason the plot is as confusing as it is.
The one thing that I’ll take away from the bigger-budget films in this trilogy is the supporting cast, which is used, abused and then disposed of without a second thought. Character played by fairly big-name actors are killed far earlier than you thought they would be, and I thought that’s a nice touch. You see someone you recognize, they get their chance to shine, and then they get killed off so that other characters get their opportunity. Some people may dislike this, but I thought it was a risky maneuver that worked well.
I’m not sure if I thought Once Upon a Time in Mexico was the best of Rodriguez’s trilogy, but it’s the one that took the most risks in its production, which may make it more worth watching than the first two. I was a little tired of the action scenes by the end, but the plot at least tried to be complex and hold my attention — that’s something that I can admire. Character depth is still ignored, but this is a film that closes off the trilogy well, and is an entertaining watch throughout.