It must be nice to be Johnny Depp. Here's a guy who has legions of fans, the freedom to pick and choose projects at his leisure, and...well, let's face it...is just a damned handsome fella to boot. To add insult to every other man's injury, Depp is also one of the most talented actors of our generation, turning in not one, but two mesmerising performances in 2003. While his Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean) may get all the accolades, I actually prefer his turn as the morally bankrupt CIA spook Agent Sands in Robert Rodriguez's high octane Leone homage, Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Depp lends an eccentricity and panache' to a character that could have easily been a one-dimensional plot foil, and winds up stealing the whole show.
Set in the years following Rodriguez's Desperado (itself a sort of big budget re-imagining of his first film, El Mariachi) , Mexico opens with a meeting between Sands and his informant, Belini (Marin). Sands is looking for a professional to throw a wrench in a planned presidential coup (not prevent one, seeing as how it's apparently in the CIA's best interests that the current president be removed from power). Belini gives Sands information which leads him to El Mariachi (Banderas), who has lived a quiet life in a small village since the death of his beloved wife Carolina (Hayek) and daughter at the hands of the corrupt General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil). Sands sends an army of henchmen (led by Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo) to bring El out of hiding, and then offers the devastated fighter a chance for vengeance, seeing as how his target will be the same man who killed his family. Meanwhile, Sands reopens a retired FBI agent's (Blades) old wounds by goading him into doing some surveillance on the man who killed his partner, lethal drug lord Barillo (DaFoe). Barillo is actually financing the coup to put a puppet government, led by Marquez, in place so that the cartels can rule Mexico. While Sands plays every conceivable angle, the quest for vengeance is the only angle El needs as he assembles his team for the biggest fight of their lives.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico is Desperado on steroids. It's bigger one every level, from its outlandish stunts and action sequences to its stellar cast. While the film was generally billed as a sequel to Desperado, it's actually much more ambitious than that. This is an all out action epic, with a dizzying plot full of twists and turns, alliances and deceptions- all orchestrated by the hilariously demented Sands. The film's only detriment, at least in my humble opinion, are El's flashbacks to the events that lead up to Carolina's death. While it's obvious that Rodriguez didn't want to make a Mariachi film without Hayek, her character's contribution here is basically to serve as the impetus for El's vengeful quest. This could have easily been pared down to a single flashback, and kept the film running on all cylinders, but (aside from a really well orchestrated escape scene) these flashbacks only serve to slow the film down.
Shot using the same Hi-Def video technology George Lucas used on Attack of the Clones, Mexico looks amazing. While I was aware that this process was used, it wasn't until I watched the DVD's behind the scenes footage that I was made aware of the incredible flexibility this medium offers filmmakers. Rodriguez says that if you can imagine it, it can be done shooting in digital and after seeing some of the action footage before and after editing, I'm convinced. This is an exciting time for independent filmmakers for even though the particular models used in this film cost a hundred grand each, this technology is rapidly becoming more affordable, and it won't be long before "shot on video" loses its low-budget stigma.
The DVD from Columbia Tri-Star features an abundance of great extras, including commentary by Rodriguez (who is a font of movie info, and I highly recommend this feature to any aspiring filmmaker), as well as the latest chapter in his 10 Minute Film School, as well as a 10 Minute Cooking School in which he shows us how to prepare a dish enjoyed by Depp's Agent Sands in the film. There are also several deleted scenes, making-of featurettes, and a segment in which Rodriguez lectures on the future of filmmaking and the benefits of shooting digitally. Rounding out the package are trailers and talent bios.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico is one of those movies I know will see a lot of mileage in my DVD player. Rodriguez’ direction is inspired, Depp's performance is sublime, and, the film itself, is simply a piece of kick-ass, all-star action cinema that's guaranteed to entertain all but the most jaded fans of the genre.