BY LYNN LEE
Robert Rodriguez must be one of the most efficient men in the movie business. Who else could singlehandedly “shoot, chop and score” an action film about a Mexican gunslinger, featuring an all-star cast, on what most studios would consider a shoestring budget? Happily for Rodriguez fans, the finished product shows no lack of polish or pizzazz, though you won’t find here the emotional heft and narrative coherence of great drama. (Nor are you likely to be looking for it here.) For a movie that revels in violence, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” is about as lightweight as they come.
“Mexico” marks the director’s third and final chapter in the saga that began with “El Mariachi” and continued with the better-known “Desperado,” starring Antonio Banderas as the vengeful mariachi (known simply, and with glorious hyperbole, as “El”) whose prowess in both the guitar and the gun serves as the stuff of legend – as well as some nifty action sequences involving the coolest guitar cases Hollywood has ever seen. Here, “El” is hired by Sands, a CIA agent of dubious integrity (actually, it’s not dubious at all: he’s a slime), played by Johnny Depp, to foil an assassination plot and coup d’état engineered by the evil drug lord Barillo (Willem Dafoe) and targeted at the benevolent, democratically elected president of Mexico. At least I think that’s what he’s hired to do; exactly what Sands is plotting never becomes terribly clear, even several twists later.
What is clear is that El Mariachi’s motivating factor is the prospect of revenge against General Marquez, commander of the military forces that will rise up against the president. Marquez, as we find out in flashback, murdered El’s wife (Salma Hayek) and daughter, and left him for dead. In addition to El, Sands recruits an ex-FBI agent (Rúben Blades) who has his own bone of revenge to pick with Barillo and a real FBI agent (Eva Mendes), who supplies far more gratuitous bust close-ups than Salma Hayek (who hardly appears in the movie, for all of her star billing). El, for his part, recruits dos amigos (Marco Leonardi and the somewhat ludicrously cast Enrique Iglésias) in possession of talents and weaponry that compare favorably with his.
Beyond this, the plotting, in all senses, is rather beside the point; suffice to say that everyone gets his or her just desserts after many spectacular feats of marksmanship and musicianship by the mariachi and cheerfully gruesome feats of bloodletting by the bad guys. The acting isn’t really the thing, either. Banderas has only two expressions throughout the movie, depending on whether he’s strumming his guitar or brandishing it as a weapon: either a look of soul-crushing world-sorrow, or one of grim intent and fixed purpose; to his credit, he does both quite well. Dafoe, as always, gets considerable mileage out of the preternatural cragginess of his face (Harry Potter fans: wouldn’t he make a great Mad-Eyed Moody?), but loses that advantage when his character decides to have reconstructive facial surgery. As for Depp, I didn’t quite know what to make of his performance, which seems to depend too much on props (e.g., a prosthetic arm, a plate of pork, a series of increasingly tacky T-shirts). His best moments involve his interactions with a little Mexican boy who tries to sell him gum. But overall, Johnny’s work here doesn’t come close to the sublime heights he reached in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
What makes “Mexico” fly is Rodriguez’s distinctive stylistic flair. He hasn’t lost his panache with bullets, nor Banderas his grace of limb, and both benefit from the crispness of digital video in which Rodriguez shot the picture, as well as the director’s visual wit, which is sometimes sly and sometimes giddily over the top. A bang-up sequence in a lovely old church is temporarily suspended by the dignified exit of an elderly woman after finishing her devotions, apparently unfazed by the sudden array of firearms and brigands. Later on, as the first shots of the coup ring out, during the course of a Day of the Dead parade, the participants, without so much as raising an eyebrow, strip away the carnations to bring out the big guns. And even as the mariachi are pondering their next move, in the distance the giant masks and floats can still be seen bobbing up and down as the loyalists and the military go at it with gusto. It’s this tinge of the surreal, delivered with a wink, that makes this “Once Upon a Time” a creditable legend and a worthy exit for El Mariachi.