Once upon a time in Mexico

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Running time: 101 minutes
Language: English
Opens March 6
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Robert Rodriguez is one of those directors who shot to fame in the early ’90s, a fabled time when the words “independent movie” and “revolution” were often bandied about together. Along with Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, Rodriguez was one of the edgy young movie brats who was going to bring a new vision to the cinema.

Or so it was said. For the most part, the critics ignored the evidence right before their eyes. Rodriguez’ debut, “El Mariachi,” was admired more for the director’s Roger Corman-esque work ethic (he supposedly shot the film for a mere $7,000) than for its rather routine gun-action content. Ditto for his bigger-budgeted Hollywood debut, “Desperado.” The critics — blinded by a nod of approval from Quentin Tarantino in the form of a cameo, as well as the U.S. debut of Pedro Almodovar regular Antonio Banderas — hyped this as something new and thrilling when it was pretty much your standard 007 flick via John Woo and a fistful of Mexican cliches.

Well, after “From Dusk Till Dawn,” two “Spy Kids” films, and — urgh — “3-D,” no one’s making any claims for Rodriguez films as being anything other than bottom-of-the-food-chain Hollywood schlock. And his latest, “Once Upon A Time In Mexico,” a sort-of sequel to “Desperado,” sure won’t change many opinions.

And yet, there’s this urge to suspect otherwise. The movie’s posters promise a delicious cast — Banderas, Salma Hayek and Johnny Depp — and the flick’s title lays claim to the mantle of Sergio Leone’s classic “spaghetti westerns.” But Leone’s skill lay in both his stylistic cool and his reinvention of the genre western, connecting to deeper streams of nihilism and corruption. Leone’s violence was meant to shock, his antiheroes to subvert. Rodriguez, on the other hand, seems to care only about his action sequences and how they are shot; the many, many characters barely exist beyond their need to provide competing factions in the final shootout. Nearly everyone dies and you won’t feel a thing.

Take Salma Hayek, a fine actress (as proven in “Frida”) whose chemistry with Banderas provided much of the charm in “Desperado.” In this flick, she barely appears, and when she does it’s in flashback. There’s one scene where she rescues her lover, El Mariachi (Banderas), from a gang, flinging knives like a ninja; there’s another where she and El Mariachi escape from a hail of bullets while handcuffed to each other (why, we don’t know); and in a third and brief scene, she’s gunned down with her child by the evil Gen. Marquez. All in all, she barely has a line of dialogue. Her role on screen is to exist as a sex object — in bared midriff and almost NC-17-inducing skirt — or as victim, and motivation for El Mariachi’s revenge. As a person, as a character, there’s not one second where we get to know what she’s about.

Which is why we don’t give a flying fajita when she’s gunned down, a numbness that’s reinforced by Rodriguez ending nearly every other scene with someone — CIA agent Sands (Depp), drug kingpin Barillo (Willem Dafoe), or bad-ass gangster Cucuy (Danny Trejo) — casually blowing away the person they were talking to. This fetishization of firepower even extends to the film’s “love” scenes. When Depp’s Sands approaches Mexican special agent Ajedrez, their foreplay consists of her firing a pistol between Sands’ legs. Which prompts him to ask, “Are you trying to give me a boner?”

No doubt Rodriguez himself has a real hard-on for firepower but viewers may be less impressed. “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” plays like a 10-year-old who was given a multimillion dollar budget to “play army” with. There’s a heap of characters all trying to kill each other in a very convoluted mix of a coup d’etat, multiple-revenge seekers, drug gangs, soldiers and the Mariachi’s band of mercenaries wielding six string-machineguns and guitar-case flamethrowers and all sorts of other “totally cool” weapons. I really couldn’t tell you what it was about, but I can tell you that it doesn’t really matter.

As for the film’s “Mexico” angle, if anyone other than the Latino Rodriguez had directed this, the PC crowd would be screaming bloody murder. The depiction of Mexico offered here gives us corrupt cops, sweaty greasy hoods, tequila shots, Chihuahuas, a Day of the Dead parade, drug dealers, tacos and, of course, mariachis. If he had only included a sombrero and a cheap whore, Rodriguez at least could have made the “Guinness Book of World Records” for the dubious feat of including every Mexican cliche in one movie. As is, he comes up just short, which is also the case in his attempt to emulate Leone’s style. Leone’s “Man With no Name,” as played by a taciturn Clint Eastwood, was nothing if not cool; Johnny Depp — who enters his final shootout like some Tim Burton wet-dream, clad in black leather, his eyes torn out of his sockets and firing blind — is merely preposterous.

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