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ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Enrique Iglesias, Marco Leonardi, Cheech Marin, Ruben Blades, Willem Dafoe
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: See Review
Length: 102 Minutes
Release Date: January 20, 2004

"Alert the Barillo cartel that EL has come out of hiding."

Film ***1/2

There's hardly a filmmaker as frequent on the scene as Robert Rodriguez. In 2003 alone, Rodriguez, who shoots, edits and scores the music in addition to producing, writing and directing, released two movies, both of which were third installments in a film series. The first was Spy Kids 3D: Game Over, which was inevitable smash thanks in large part to the return of the lost phenomenon known as 3D moviegoing. The second movie, however, is the much more phenomenal of the two, as well as one of the director's best pieces to date.

Once Upon a Time In Mexico is the third and final chapter in Rodriguez' Mariachi trilogy, which also consists of El Mariachi and Desperado. The title is, of course, a nod to Sergio Leone, whose spaghetti western series ended with Once Upon a Time In the West. But above anything else, Mexico is a dead on resemblance of Leone's The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly. The suggestion for the title came from none other than Rodriguez' close pal, Quentin Tarantino.

What makes Once Upon a Time In Mexico, in my opinion, the most stellar of the three films is the notion that it is the epitome of something you wouldn't expect to find in the aftermath of the last two movies. This story mixes in some fresh new characters, each of whom is played by familiar faces that you wouldn't expect to see alongside one another in such a movie. In the midst of a quite convoluted plot, the story marks a more than satisfying conclusion to the Mariachi's journey.

The strings of the plot are held together by a slippery rouge named Sands, played by Johnny Depp in yet another fantastic scene-stealing performance, in the wake of his phenomenal tour de force in Pirates of the Caribbean. Sands is a CIA operative working the beat in Mexico, and is involved in some shady dealings as means of executing a complicated plan. His primary objective is to locate the mysterious, guitar-toting gunman El (Antonio Banderas).

Sands approaches the gunman with a job offer, which is to take out the sadistic General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil), the very man who murdered Mariachi's wife and daughter. It turns out, Marquez is being paid by the drug lord Barillo (Willem Dafoe) to attempt on the life of the Mexican president, who has vowed to put an end to all the drug dealings in his country. Sands also manages to retrieve the services of retired FBI agent Jorge (Ruben Blades), whose partner was taken out by Barillo himself.

The character of Sands is one of pure original form, and like he did with Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, Johnny Depp creates a performance that takes on a life of its own. Very often do you find yourself rooting for a seemingly despicable character, but Agent Sands is just such an exception. He goes through manipulative lengths to put his plan in check, such as setting up El to do battle with some henchmen in a church, and later executing an innocent restaurant waitress who succeeded in blowing his cover. And yet despite his subtle psychotic demeanor, Sands ultimately becomes the rooting interest along with the Mariachi.

If the look of the movie seems a bit distinctive, it's because Rodriguez shot it by way of the Hi Def digital camera process, and it looks quite spectacular. It's not question that George Lucas' innovative technique used in Attack of the Clones inspired Rodriguez to supply such a look, and the be honest, Mexico has never looked more beautiful. As for the action sequences, I will leave for your eyes to discover, except to say that they seem to be an inspired mixture of both Sergio Leone and John Woo.

Rarely does an action movie prevail simultaneously in the categories of action, character and plot, but Robert Rodriguez has managed to do the impossible with this movie. Blending in heart-pounding action, superb comedy relief, and a top flight cast, highlighted by Johnny Depp's irreplaceable edge and the ever so cool Banderas, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is indeed a quintessential action epic, and then some.

Video ****

The notion that the movie was shot in a digital format alone should indicate how incredible the anamorphic presentation is. Columbia Tri Star has delivered a purely outstanding looking disc, which is flawless in every sense of the word. Image is persistently clear and sharp as a blade, and colors appear natural as can be, helping in bringing the look of Mexico to sheer life. Unquestionably, the first great looking disc of the new year.

Audio ****

No surprises here. I saw the movie at the multiplex and was instantly blown away by the explosive sound power that was delivered. The 5.1 mix is at every bit the equal, providing terrific range among the channels, and delivering clear sound presence in the fields of action, music and dialogue. A most explosive experience.

Features ****

Columbia Tri Star loads the barrels for this smokin' package. Included are two commentaries; one with Robert Rodriguez, the second a music and sound design track with commentary. Also featured are an array of featurettes, starting with "Ten Minute Flick School" and "Ten Minute Cooking School". In addition, there's "Inside Troublemaker Studios", "Film is Dead: An Evening with Robert Rodriguez", "The Anti-Hero's Journey", and an effects featurette titled "The Good The Bad and The Bloody". Lastly, there are deleted scenes and a trailer gallery.

Summary:

Superior and explosive in both action and story, Once Upon a Time In Mexico is the perfect and ultimate finish to a strong action movie trilogy. With Johnny Depp adding extreme bite to the mix, and Antonio Banderas in perhaps his most defining movie role, this will serve terrifically for those needing a night of explosive cinema.