Once Upon a Time in Mexico

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Time was, a film making only $25 million would not warrant a sequel. But in a year when even something like “Jeepers Creepers” gets a follow-up, we have “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” the sequel to 1995’s “Desperado” (itself a sequel to the ultra-low-budget “El Mariachi,” from 1992).

It is all the handiwork of Robert Rodriguez, a film industry maverick and jack-of-all-trades. He handled the writing, directing, photographing, editing, producing and scoring of this film, and he has multi-tasked on his other work, too, including the recent trilogy of “Spy Kids” flicks. There is always a singularity of vision about his movies, an energy that carries from screenplay to scene composition to editing. You can tell it’s the work of the same talented man, and there’s a certain excitement to seeing a movie made that way.

“Once Upon a Time in Mexico” has more of the same exuberant violence and bloodshed that marked “El Mariachi” and “Desperado,” where the force of being shot often propels victims backward and airborne several yards, where the bloodless gunshot wounds of old-time Westerns are a thing of the past, and where even the good guys can get shot, too (though they often live to tell about it). Such extremities are an acquired taste, certainly, though the cool stylization of the wanton bloodshed is undeniably impressive, whether you happen to like looking at it or not.

This time around, El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), the brooding guitarist/gunfighter, is approached with a special mission by a CIA agent named Sands (Johnny Depp). A drug lord named Marquez (Gerardo Vigil) is going to assassinate the Mexican president, stage a coup, and assume leadership of the country. Sands wants El Mariachi to kill Marquez AFTER he takes out the president but BEFORE he can take control.

El Mariachi is preoccupied with mourning the apparent demise of his lover Carolina (Salma Hayek), mourning being a running theme for him in these films. He actually disappears from the film for a while, as Rodriguez focuses a lot of attention on Johnny Depp’s scene-stealing CIA agent. (Amazingly, Depp does for this film what he did for “Pirates of the Caribbean,” i.e., he saves it, overhauls it and makes it worth watching.)

The film gets extremely bogged down in its side plots, though. I’m honestly at a loss to explain who everyone is, or why they want the various other people dead. I know only that most of them get their wish. I know there’s Willem Dafoe as a drug guy who wants to alter his face so as to be unrecognizable, and a female Mexican agent (Eva Mendes) who has a history with Sands, and Mickey Rourke as an American who’s involved somehow, and also a chihuahua that sort of figures in and sort of doesn’t, and Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo and Enrique Iglesias and a million others. It’s one of the busiest films I’ve seen, especially when the busyness is viewed in ratio to how much is actually accomplished.

Depp’s performance, as parenthetically mentioned, is the best reason to see the film, the audacious violence being the second-best. It never runs short on energy, and such frantic endeavors can make a film fun without making it, you know, good.

B- (1 hr., 41 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, abundant strong violence.)

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