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‘Once’ may not be enough

Review: Rodriguez creates a complicated but fun film
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

Writer-director (and several other hyphenates) Robert Rodriguez brings some of his “Spy Kids” playfulness to the R-rated “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” Affectionately conceived, imaginatively staged and highly entertaining, the new pic is the concluding chapter of the “El Mariachi” trilogy, the spaghetti-Western homage starring Antonio Banderas as the gun- and guitar-toting “man with no name.”

The plot proves so complicated and confusing that viewers may need to see the film a second time to sort out all the crosses, double-crosses and even identities, which twist the story into a jumbo-sized pretzel — only to unravel, Houdini-style, and make perfect sense. While not attracting the family-friendly crowds that have made the “Spy Kids” franchise such a hit, the picture should open well and stay in theaters several weeks because of generally favorable word-of-mouth. Game audiences will be up for a second viewing, on DVD or video if not on the big screen, which promises a brisk business in rentals and sales.

Rodriguez wanted the story to pick up so far after the fade-out in “Desperado,” the second episode in the franchise, that he came up with the rather clever idea of creating a never-before-seen plot — that presumably takes place between the second and third films — and injecting flashbacks of this story line throughout the picture. These sequences not only serve to reveal what has transpired with the characters but also help to explain El Mariachi’s morose attitude toward his own fate.

These new developments include a marriage to his beloved Carolina (second-billed Salma Hayek), who, for reasons that become apparent as the flashbacks proceed, appears only in the protagonist’s memory. Third-billed Johnny Depp, on the other hand, is onscreen almost as much as Banderas.

A pretzel-like plot
The plot sounds simple enough: corrupt CIA agent Sands (Depp) tracks El Mariachi down to a tiny, secluded village south of the border and recruits him in a bid to stop an assassination plot against the president of Mexico. The man behind the plot is the nefarious Barrillo (Willem Dafoe), the top dog of the country’s largest and most profitable drug cartel. El Mariachi has had past dealings with the man whom Barrillo hires to carry out the execution, which explains our hero’s reasons for agreeing to help Sands.

Expertly shot by Rodriguez (who also served as editor, production designer and composer) on a Sony 24-frames-per-second digital high-definition camera, the film basks in gorgeous blasts of golden light that both reflect and accentuate the story’s mythic dimensions (as does the music). Choreographed fight sequences, containing impossible leaps and kicks, turn the violence into a kind of ballet — which isn’t to say that the film isn’t violent. It’s easy to see why it got an R rating (though DVD and video rentals among the male, under-17 demographic should be enormous). Hundreds of bad guys are mowed down by El Mariachi and his sidekicks, while the three of them sustain only minor injuries.

The film is great fun, albeit terribly confusing at times because of the great number of ancillary characters as well as their shifting loyalties, which find them changing sides or even working for both sides. The supporting cast includes Rodriguez regulars Danny Trejo, Ruben Blades and Cheech Marin.

Banderas has his role down to a T, exhibiting just the right balance of dashing hero and anguished, isolated loner. Hayek alternately smolders and glows but is onscreen a surprisingly short time. It is Sands who shares center stage with El Mariachi. Like all of the actors, Depp obviously is having a great deal of fun here, but he sometimes seems to be coasting. It’s all just too easy for him (as was his wonderful recent turn in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”), and you can’t help but hope he tackles a meatier role next time around.

Editing his own work no doubt allows Rodriguez to shoot with great economy. The film reportedly was shot in a mere seven weeks, remarkable for a movie with this many crazy and demanding stunts. The story does start to get out of hand toward the end — too much action can become stultifying — but the fact that all the confusing motives, relationships and plot threads eventually, and rather suddenly, make sense helps the film end on a positive note. “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” is one of two Rodriguez films represented at this year’s festival. Like “Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over,” it is playing out of competition.