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Photograph by Rico Torres

Like a Rock: Director Robert Rodriguez uses Danny Trejo's stony features to fine effect in the frantic 'Once Upon a Time in Mexico.'

Mexican Junk Food

Robert Rodriguez's 'Once Upon a Time in Mexico' is 'El Mariachi' with ADD

By Richard von Busack

IF El Mariachi--the first film by Robert Rodriguez, made for $298 or whatever--was DIY punk rock; if its follow-up, Desperado, was like a suite of Mexican flamenco-style love songs--then Rodriguez's finale to the trilogy, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, is hip-hop. The stuttery and fluttery picture (Rodriguez uses the word "chopped" on the credits, instead of "edited") is like a sampled array of several dozen movies shoved into a too-short running time. The title comes from Sergio Leone, but does Rodriguez remember Leone's use of anticipation, the stopping of time to lengthen suspense? We get few glimpses of the fervent comic romanticism of Desperado, Rodriguez's best movie. The director seems to be getting more kidlike as he grows older. Once Upon a Time in Mexico is as short-attention-spanned and heartless in its way as Spy Kids 3-D.

The pop-culture Mexico that Rodriguez grooves on at his best isn't all just about swearing vows to shoot and destroy; it is also about being engorged with love, furious with it. But Once Upon a Time in Mexico doesn't linger over romance. The love object--the one and only Salma Hayek--is only flashback fodder, and Rodriguez seems to have lost enthusiasm for her (hard to imagine that; when she walks by, you expect men to keel over in cartoon faints, heels up in the air). Hayek has one moment as brilliantly engineered as anything by Buster Keaton in which she and her Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) zip down the five-story facade of a building, handcuffed, swinging from balcony to fire escape, only to land on the prow of a speeding bus.

Something else that can be said for Once Upon a Time in Mexico is that the locations don't disappoint. Rodriguez shot this in Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. The movie insists that Mexico is one big colonial monument. In maybe the funniest moment, Danny Trejo's head, which is like a fissured boulder, is contrasted with a massive wall of antique masonry. I could sooner lift 500 pounds with one hand than describe the plot, which is essentially about preserving the president of Mexico (Pedro Armendáriz Jr., who certainly looks presidential) against a coup engineered by a narco boss (Willem Dafoe, covered with the same makeup Chuck Heston used in Touch of Evil).

To even his chances, the crime boss has somehow bought an army general. The villains never confer. A "map" sequence (like in the Bond films, where the villain unrolls a big map and explains his master plan) would have been helpful. Johnny Depp, playing some too-far-up-the-river CIA agent, wanders around, muttering odd and probably improvised gibberish; he's involved with a special agent named Ajedrez (Eva Mendes, who is basically Gina Gershon with the volume turned up). Also lurking about is a strangely humble Mickey Rourke, cuddling a Chihuahua. The film's wrong-footedness is summed up in the distracted use of Enrique Iglesias--whose ridiculously passionate vamping, as seen in that chips commercial on TV, would have been perfect for mariachism. Banderas himself is most passionate when off by himself caressing a guitar. Once Upon a Time in Mexico always seems to be tuning its guitar and quitting before it comes time to cut loose.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (R; 97 min.), directed, written and photographed by Robert Rodriguez and starring Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Willem Dafoe and Johnny Depp, opens Friday at selected theaters countywide.

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From the September 10-17, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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