What I'm Watching: Once Upon a Time in Mexico | Live Culture

What I'm Watching: Once Upon a Time in Mexico


I’m a longtime and unabashed admirer of Robert Rodriguez, who has been a polarizing figure in American film since he (and I think it’s fair to use the cliché in this case) burst on the scene with El Mariachi, his famously low-budget feature-film debut. I love his stylistic brashness, his willingness to both abide by and invert genre conventions, and his ability to bounce back and forth between “big” Hollywood films and more personal projects.

Even when Rodriguez’s films are less than great, they’re always — and I mean always — visually inventive and exciting. I happen to think Sin City is a great film, but even if you disagree, you can’t deny its visual originality and boldness. I’m equally fond of Rodriguez’s more straightforward genre exercises, such as Spy Kids and The Faculty, both of which demonstrate a deep grasp of genre conventions as well as a playful willingness to bend them. Planet Terror, his half of Grindhouse, certainly showed that he understands genre more profoundly than does his codirector, Quentin Tarantino.

I remember seeing, and raving about, Once Upon a Time in Mexico when it hit theaters in 2003, but hadn’t seen it since then. Last year, when Hollywood Video in South Burlington closed, I made off like a bandit at their going-out-of-business sale, picking up 20-odd DVDs, including Once Upon a Time in Mexico. When I finally pulled it off the shelf last week to give it a second look, I was excited to revisit what I recalled as a colorful, enjoyably clever movie.

I don’t usually find my own opinions lining up with those of the critical establishment, but Once Upon a Time in Mexico provided a opportunity for them to do just that. Just as many critics wrote at the time of its release, I found Once Upon a Time in Mexico to be a somewhat tiresome mishmash, its plot needlessly convoluted and its generic identity oddly muffled.

My 180-degree shift of opinion on this film is further support for my oft-repeated claim that one never really understands a film until one sees it for the second time. The first time around, it’s so easy to get caught up in a film’s novelty that one’s critical faculties become compromised; it’s in subsequent viewings that films often reveal their true colors. (The caveat is that I can name plenty of films that I don’t yet fully grasp even after a good dozen viewings, either because they’re too arcane, too complex or too rich.) As its title hints, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is partly an homage to two Sergio Leone films, Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America, with the former the far bigger influence. “Spaghetti westerns” in general are Rodriguez’s central reference point, and that subgenre informs Once Upon a Time in Mexico in everything from costume design to shot composition to music to narrative structure.

One of the hallmarks of spaghetti westerns is that they have relatively simple plots that almost always have revenge at their cores. The advantage of the revenge plot is that it is very simple: You did something bad to me, so I’m going to track you down and do something bad to you. The ne plus ultra example of such a film is probably A Fistful of Dollars, arguably the spaghetti western that started ‘em all. In that film, every act of violence is countered by another, which is itself countered by another, ad infinitum and reductio ad absurdum, until only our antihero is left standing.

Spaghetti westerns often use revenge-based plots as simple armatures on which to hang the stylistic flights of fancy for which they are famous. Shot compositions, editing and music (to name but a few of their most prominent features) can get pretty baroque in Italian westerns of the 1960s and 1970s, but rarely are they so baroque as to render their films’ stories opaque — precisely because those stories are often quite simple, even simplistic.

Rodriguez, of course, has no obligation to abide by every convention of the spaghetti western, and in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, he opts for a totally different strategy. Here the stylistic flourishes the director employs rest on the back of a story so knotty as to be almost incomprehensible.

An overabundance of characters is a central problem, with major players introduced nearly every 20 minutes. Even more frustrating is the fact that every character is morally ambiguous, switching from one side of the law to the other with little or no prompting. (The most arbitrary cases are those of Mickey Rourke’s and Eva Mendes’ characters, who flip-flop from bad to good and from good to bad, respectively, with no warning and no justification.)
So the film is already an uneasy marriage of spaghetti western style and the plot of, say, an organized crime film. (In fact, its story is not unlike that of The Departed.) To further complicate this cinematic olio, Rodriguez effectively introduces yet a third genre, and it fits in with the others so uneasily as to drag the whole movie down with it.

That third genre is comedy — in itself, not surprising, as most of Rodriguez’s films, including Once Upon a Time in Mexico’s semi-prequels El Mariachi and Desperado, are at least partly comic. In this one, though, the problem is that only one character operates in the comedic mode: Johnny Depp’s oddball CIA agent Sheldon Sands.

Sands is the only one to lace his dialogue and gestures with irony — everyone else in the film plays it straight. Despite his being conspicuously absent from the film for a good 25-minute chunk of its second act, Sands is a pivotal character: It’s around his narrative arc that the film’s story ultimately revolves. Yet Depp, usually a fine actor, plays the character as if he’s from another film entirely — or perhaps from a ham-fisted “Saturday Night Live” parody of Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

Ultimately, few of the pieces in Once Upon a Time in Mexico add up to create anything like a satisfyingly unified whole. That’s not to say the movie is without its pleasures. One utterly delightful moment that I hadn’t recalled from my first viewing is an early scene in which the Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek characters — each wearing one brace of a heavy-duty, long-chained set of handcuffs — leap out a fifth-floor window to escape attackers. Rodriguez stages a brilliant, nearly Keaton-worthy setup in which one person grabs onto a flagpole or balustrade, and the other swings on the chain to reach another handhold. In this manner they seesaw vertically down the face of the building as bullets zing by their ears. The staging is superb.

Would that other moments stood out in the same way. Once Upon a Time in Mexico ultimately has too many narrative and generic ideas for its own good, and clever setpieces like the one with the handcuff-chain seem to have been left by the wayside.

It pains me to write it, but I found myself enjoying one of the DVD’s extras somewhat more than the film. In “Ten-Minute Cooking School,” Rodriguez himself affably guides us through the process of making a dish that figures in the story of Once Upon a Time in Mexico: cochinita pibil, slow-roasted pork seasoned with achiote and citrus. Inspired by this little video, I plan to make cochinita pibil very soon, and thus to wash away the taste of a movie that ought to have been better than it is.

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