The Johnny Depp Archive

Once Upon A Time In Mexico (2003)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, Enrique Iglesias

Directed by: Robert Rodriguez

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Antonio Banderas as El Mariachi

One Upon A Time in Mexico is the final instalment in Robert Rodriguez' El Mariachi trilogy, which began with the low-budget cult flick El Mariachi (which I must admit I haven't actually seen) and continued with Desperado, a breathtakingly brilliant action film that made Antonio Banderas a sex symbol worldwide.

Likewise, Once Upon A Time In Mexico boasts all the hallmarks of a classic action flick, with gunfights and explosions galore (not to mention knives, tanks and a flame-throwing guitar case), a gravity defying set piece in a church and the obligatory car/motorbike chase, all slickly captured by dizzyingly cool rapid fire camera work, and just enough gore to make you wince but not enough to put you off your popcorn.

But that's not all: Once Upon A Time In Mexico has a few more cards (or concealed weapons) up its sleeve than your average action movie.

Johnny Depp stealing a scene as Sands

Firstly, it has a passion, a deep-seated passion for the country in which it is set. The Mexico depicted in the film may be a lawless and violent land, chaotic, cruel and criminal, where military coups are the order of the day and a man can stride into a restaurant kitchen and shoot the cook stone dead without anybody batting an eyelid, but it is also a vibrant, sexy, colourful and exciting place, peopled by a passionate (if somewhat stereotyped) race who are ready to stand up and fight to the death for what they believe in.

Drugs barons, evil generals and ruthless henchmen may loom large in the movie, but they are not the only examples of humanity to be found. The ordinary, everyday characters we encounter - the smiling, moustachioed guitar maker in the Mariachi's home town, the ultra helpful small boy selling bubblegum - are revealed as decent, loyal, good hearted people who come to symbolise the warm beating heart of Mexico.

And alongside the ordinary people, of course, we have the hero: the legendary Mariachi himself, a gun-toting desperado who, since the murder of his wife and child by a corrupt military general (who else?), feels that he too is dead, and yet who discovers that there is an emotion stronger than hatred and the desire for revenge: pride as a son of Mexico. Cue much flamenco guitar widdling and a suitably uplifting ending - yes it's stereotypical, yes it's kinda patrionising, but hey, it works!

Sands' last stand

Anyway. The second ace up the film's (fake) sleeve is, of course, Johnny Depp, who steals every scene as the conniving, manipulative and utterly ruthless CIA agent turned cold-blooded killer, Sands. With his poker face, innovative methods of dispatching his victims and entertaining array of dodgy 'taches and truly terrible outfits, he is both hilarious and terrifying, the epitome of anti-cool, chilling as ice. However, in a film obsessed with revenge and just deserts, rest assure that his eventual punishment will fit his crimes exactly. What do you do to the spy who sees all? Think about it - but not too hard whilst eating your popcorn. His last stand is sheer genius - far be it for me to chuck in a spoiler, but suffice it to say that just as you think it's all over. it isn't.

As for the rest, Latino love god Antonio Banderas reprises his role as the Mariachi with aplomb, looking suitably mean and moody and measured; Salma Hayek looks exotic and beautiful as his wife but doesn't really get to do much and Willem Dafoe as the bad guy is, well, Willem Dafoe as a bad guy, complete with trademark sneer and bad moustache.

Mickey Rourke as Billy Chambers with friend

The real surprise of the film is Mickey Rourke. part of the surprise being that he's still alive. With a face like a cosmetic surgery train wreck and a girth that's definitely tackled one too many tacos, he lends a convincing mix of hidden menace and ironic pathos to his role as Billy Chambers, the FBI's Most Wanted turned reluctant cartel lackey.

Once Upon A Time In Mexico is not a perfect film. It's a little incoherent and confusing at times (having seen it when it first came out, it's taken a second viewing to really make sense of the plot) and could really use a few more subtitles as well. And it features (shudder) Enrique Iglesias, a name I never thought would darken this website, although actually he isn't nearly as annoying as I feared he'd be. That said, the attention to detail is wonderful, and it's the inclusion of deft little touches and snappy throwaway lines that make you momentarily believe that these larger than life characters could actually be real.

Passionate, sexy, exciting and clever, Once Upon A Time In Mexico is a great action film. Si, amigo, mi gusta.

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