ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO
*½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A
starring Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Johnny Depp, Rubén Blades
written and directed by Robert Rodriguez
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS
starring Robert Carlyle, Vanessa Feltz, Ricky Tomlinson, Kathy Burke
screenplay by Paul Fraser & Shane Meadows
directed by Shane Meadows
by Walter Chaw Ferociously patriotic but lacking in the epic scope suggested by its obvious debt to Sergio Leone's late masterpieces, pastiche-meister Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a magnification of John Woo in a lot of the same ways that Woo was a magnification of Leone--a post-post modern exercise bound together with a compelling sense of style but an alarming dearth of even the basics of sense. At the same time, if Leone understood the raucous humanism at the heart of Kurosawa, and Woo the insolent demystification of genre archetype of Leone, Rodriguez seems mainly to have ported the puerile macho fantasy of Woo while glancing off the deeper well of questions of honour and the mysterious bond between killers of men. I'm beginning to think that Rodriguez is a cheap filmmaker, interested in the mechanics of a piece more than the motivations of them. He can shoot a mean picture, he just can't set it up, pay it off, or explain it--and in replicating the best shoot-outs of Woo and Leone, he demonstrates that he's no Woo and most definitely no Leone.
It's impossible from one moment to the next to understand what's going on in Once Upon a Time in Mexico beyond a vague sense of Rodriguez's irritation with Dubya's dystopia and a feeling--sometimes operatic, sometimes not--of loss and the will to vengeance. Johnny Depp is Sands, a CIA agent who might be rogue but probably isn't, who likes slow-cooked pork and stealing the film from everyone else (see also: Pirates of the Caribbean). Sands is in Mexico to start a coup or thwart one, or allow one to happen and assassinate the perpetrator, and to do this thing or some combination of these things, he's hoping to enlist the services of legendary pistolero El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), who, as the film begins, is sequestered away in a guitar-making village, mourning the murder of his wife (Salma Hayek) and young daughter. Willem Dafoe is a gangster or something made up to look like Charlton Heston from Touch of Evil, Mickey Rourke, carrying around a Chihuahua at all times, is Dafoe's number-one man, maybe, and then there's the president of Mexico (I think), who is about to be assassinated or something by someone or someones.
The Willem Dafoe character, Barillo, gets a gruesome face lift at one point and spends the rest of the picture swathed in bandages, leading me to wonder whether Dafoe was replaced a few days into filming--in high Ed Wood fashion--by an extra in gauze. Barillo also appears to have a daughter (Eva Mendes), a federal marshal or something who might be unfaithful or something. The fact that Rodriguez didn't have a completed script when he started shooting is not a surprise--the fact that there are claims that he had one by the time he finished, is. By the end, El Mariachi, rebel-without-a-crew Rodriguez's alter ego, walks off into the sunset draped in a Mexican flag, Rodriguez having ripped off the church shootout from The Killer, a chunk of the hospital and morgue intrigue from Hard-Boiled, the plastic surgery discomfort from Face/Off, and, switching directors briefly, the falling escape from Tsui Hark's Time and Tide, and the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin. Barillo, meanwhile, learns to play Carter Burwell's theme from Blood Simple.
Banderas is wonderful in the role of the heroic cipher, sadly set adrift in this mess with nothing to do but look good in black and spangle. Depp is fantastically weird and dangerous in a way that made the actor the perfect choice to play Hunter S. Thompson, while Hayek in a tiny role is back to look amazing. It's a great shame that with all of the ingredients for something fun, all Once Upon a Time in Mexico seems to be is a chance for Rodriguez to fart around with a state-of-the-art digital camera (it looks great); to push that exhausted envelope again in regards to violence and cruelty; to push a lack of respect for audience in his astonishing disregard for preparation; and to pretend that all those images and showdowns weren't already done and with more clarity, justification, and invention. (And by men that Rodriguez probably meant to compliment, besides.) Hyperactive and unmoored from anything like context, either externally or internally, the picture is a bombastic vacuum; only a vision of Depp, cheeks streaked with blood like a perverse harlequin, transcends the fast fashion of the whole exercise, providing an enduring image for the piece along with a pithy comment on an onanistic experiment that is, ultimately, unwatchable. There's energy in the thing, no question, even if it's stolen, a few scenes and shots breathlessly romantic and breathtakingly kinetic, but Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a picture mostly in love with the grotesque and itself--a work of immense hubris, and a series of barely related vignettes with loosely continuous characters.
On the other side of the pond, Shane Meadows's Once Upon a Time in the Midlands is also about a guitarist treated unkindly, a mysterious stranger with a fearsome reputation, an idyllic relationship disrupted by tragedy, a self-described "mysterious Zorro figure," and another take on the western genre complete with an ambling Southwestern-flavoured score. Played for romantic comedy yuks rather than gravid melo-operatic contortions (and distinguishing itself from other products of the UK comedy mill by not featuring any old men and women or young boys naked), the picture follows the plight of shiftless loser, small-time criminal Jimmy (Robert Carlyle) as he steals a lot of money from three circus clowns and returns to his small Scottish burg to reclaim his lost love Shirley (the insufferable, simpering Shirley Henderson) and their daughter Marlene (Finn Atkins) from the clutches of mild-mannered simp Dek (Rhys Ifans). The first tense moment involves Dek being humiliated while proposing to Shirley on a Jenny Jones-like television show, the second involves Jimmy being hunted down by his partners in crime, and the third involves me deciding whether or not to take the constant watch-checking as a clue that my time would be better spent walking around, staring directly into the sun.
Once Upon a Time in the Midlands features a load of low-angle, monumental compositions that make light sport of the fact that Meadows is terribly clever for substituting a cordless drill for a colt revolver. A mournful penny-whistle now and again apes Ennio Morricone's scores for Leone, calling attention to the fact that the picture is unsuccessful as a tribute, a comedy, a crime thriller, heartfelt pap, and a romance. It's convenient, slapstick, and unimaginatively scripted and directed, overlooking the most basic of plot points (like why doesn't Shirley ever warn Jimmy about the trio of goons coming after him--and what happens to the goons for the final third of the film, anyhow?) while fixating on minutia bizarre (like how Dek appears to be named after his non-vanity license plate) and unfruitful (like Jimmy's uncle dubbing himself "Charlie Nashville" and composing bad music while on the toilet). Once Upon a Time in the Midlands is as stupid as Once Upon a Time in Mexico, in other words, and very nearly as arbitrary. But for as empty as it ultimately turns out to be, at least the latter boasts of some agreeably manic eye candy from Rodriguez. He's less filmmaker now than freakshow, but at least it can be said that freakshows aren't boring. Originally published: September 12, 2003.
THE DVD - ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO
by Bill Chambers A wonderful DVD of a lousy movie, Columbia TriStar's Once Upon a Time in Mexico platter has the potential to become a key tool for arguing the merits of digital video. That being said, it's more successful at fuelling envy than at propagating an ideology. Renaissance Mexican Robert Rodriguez oversaw the majority of supplements personally, starting with "Ten Minute Flick School (Fast, Cheap, and In Control)" (9 mins.): As on the El Mariachi and Desperado DVDs, Rodriguez narrates an assembly of raw footage from the film in question. Shooting Once Upon a Time in Mexico with HiDef instead of celluloid cameras apparently allowed for more spontaneous implementations of CGI--Rodriguez claims that he solicited some 330 unallotted F/X shots (many of the niftiest of which Rodriguez deconstructs in the vein of football play-by-plays) and still came in under budget, though I'm not convinced that the sloppiness encouraged by the flexibility of DV (the phrase "we'll fix it in post" is a veritable mantra on HiDef productions) isn't largely responsible for the inflated number. Here, Rodriguez credits Johnny Depp, whose only film as director, The Brave, was shelved after a disastrous Cannes premiere (haven't seen, but it is based on one of the most unpleasant novels I've ever read), with the signature image of the movie: Agent Sands dangling a third arm out the driver's side window.
"Inside Troublemaker Studios" (11 mins.) finds the auteur proudly displaying the garage of his home, which has been converted into a "pipe dream" editing facility complete with a mixing stage and state-of-the-art music equipment. It's all in the name of what Rodriguez calls "working at the speed of thought" and curtailing the amount of studio interference he would typically endure in post; too bad the tour of the actual Troublemaker soundstage in Austin is truncated in a way that leads us to suspect it's not yet ready for prime time. Rodriguez returns in the frenetic "Ten-Minute Cooking School" (6 mins.), wherein he instructs us in the preparation of Sands's favourite dish puerco pabil--but not before offering up a self-aggrandizing lesson in the importance of designing homemade menus for the benefit of guests to your kitchen. (Sigh.) "Film Is Dead: An Evening with Robert Rodriguez" (13 mins.) is a distillation of Rodriguez's recent lecture on the advantages of HiDef. While he begins with the perfect anecdote/moral, he eventually creates a rather maddening loophole in saying that 35mm is inadequate for capturing actor Danny Trejo's "Leone face"--last I checked, Sergio Leone died prior to the advent of digital video, so how on earth did he affect the cinematic lexicon with such "inadequate" resources?
Promotional in nature, "The Anti-Hero's Journey" (18 mins.) needlessly hoards disc space, but one always enjoys it when the boys from KNB chime in on their latest gore innovations, and Charles de Lauzirika's "The Good, the Bad & the Bloody: Inside KNB FX" (19 mins.) also includes the frankest discussion of DV in the entire package as the acronymic make-up technicians expose unanticipated drawbacks to HiDef's exaggerated saturation and unforgiving clarity. Eight less-than-noteworthy deleted scenes with optional commentary from Rodriguez round out the special features; Rodriguez additionally provides two film-length yakkers, the second of which, labelled a "sound design track," weaves a tapestry of Rodriguez soundbites, isolated foley effects, and snatches of score. The stand-alone yak-track is actually Rodriguez's best to date, since for the first time, really, he speaks of matters not related to penny-pinching or showing up other directors, often connecting the dots between characters and events in Once Upon a Time in Mexico and their real-life inspirations. If this doesn't improve the film one iota, it at least makes it seem a more invested work.
The otherwise irreproachable and film-like 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of Once Upon a Time in Mexico is marred by a few motion blurs endemic to HiDef and a few compression artifacts for which the abundance of bonus material is to blame. (Though the film was matted to 2.35:1 in moviehouses, 1.78:1 is Rodriguez's preferred aspect ratio for home video.) The DD 5.1 soundmix is not as immersive as one expects from the guy who brought you the deafening From Dusk Till Dawn--Rodriguez basically mixed the film himself, and the lacklustre audio indicates that he's spreading himself too thin. Trailers for Once Upon a Time in Mexico (redband and greenband), Big Fish, Desperado, El Mariachi, Hellboy, In the Cut, The Missing, Underworld, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and You Got Served cap things off. Originally published: February 3, 2004.