A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 433 – Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Once Upon a Time in Mexico – May 7th, 2011

So we come to the end of our Mexico trilogy. Or rather, Robert Rodriguez’s Mexico trilogy. This is the third and final movie of the set and definitely the biggest of them. It’s not quite the same degree of difference from the second movie as the second move was from the first, but it’s certainly a few steps up in terms of the stakes and the action. Everything’s bigger in this one, which I have some issues with. But I also greatly enjoy the movie anyhow. It has some great characters and some fantastic action. I’m just not sure it fits as seamlessly with the other two as they do with each other.

Part of the problem here is just how big it’s all gotten. The plot in this movie isn’t about local problems on a city or town scale. It’s about local problems only if you define local by country. Because what’s at stake here, and at the heart of the schemes and double crossings, is the position of President of Mexico. There’s a general involved, and the CIA and the FBI and their Mexican counterparts and a US fugitive and a crime lord and a hit man, or rather hit men, and generally the scale is just so very much larger than the others. Sure, El Mariachi’s involvement hinges on a personal connection and drive for revenge (of course), but that’s not really the focus of the film, regardless of all the flashbacks we get.

There’s just too much politicking and bribing and scheming on the parts of everyone else for the flashbacks to make as much impact as they might have in a tighter movie. El is hired to help with a coup. Certain people would like the current president overthrown, but those people also don’t want the general who’s going to overthrow him to actually gain power. It just so happens that the general in question murdered Carolina and her and El’s daughter, so he’s not going to pass up the opportunity to take the man out. The thing is, in either of the other movies that would be the plot. It would all be about El arriving in the city and sizing up the opposition and making his moves against the general’s men and eventually killing him, possibly while meeting another woman in the process. But since that road had been trod twice already Rodriguez decided to toss in a whole additional plot with the man who hired El in the first place. Agent Sands is a corrupt and sociopathic CIA agent stationed in Mexico and the secondary plot here deals with his wheeling and dealing with a crime lord and his cartel and agents. Some of it involves El as well, but a lot of it doesn’t. A lot of it is Sands on his own. It splits the movie, in my opinion.

Now, this is not to say that this isn’t a good movie. It’s a great movie! But for me it doesn’t follow in the footsteps of Desperado as much as I’d like. It doesn’t feel as intimate. Yes, there’s a bar brawl scene in the beginning. It’s the scene of a story being told about El Mariachi and his deeds and how now he’s got this woman with him and she’s just as deadly. But the story is being told to Sands, who is one bad ass dude, and even the bar the brawl is in feels bigger and more expanded than the bars in the previous movies. And after Sands’ contact leaves the restaurant they’ve been taking in and we see that Sands had a hidden gun on him the whole time we know that Sands is going to be a focal point. And he’s played by Johnny Depp, who gives this bizarre agent of chaos a comedic spin while keeping him utterly terrifying in his badassitude.

So here’s my problem. I love Johnny Depp as Sands. I love how he is emphatically not a good guy. I love how he’s very much an instigator in this whole mess and how he pretty much sees that as his purpose in life. He lives in Mexico and fucks with people by setting up schemes and plots and putting them in motion to maneuver local politics and crime and he enjoys it. He says to El that his purpose is to maintain balance in Mexico, but it’s a balance that he defines. He is a strange sort of figure here. And yet you want to see him make it out of this alive. Or I do, anyhow. He’s morally reprehensible and devoid of empathy and yet he’s somehow not evil. Not in comparison to the general who killed El’s wife and daughter. Not in comparison to the crime boss, Barillo. And to be honest, he kind of steals the movie and I find myself not caring because he’s just plain fun to watch. Horrifying, but fun.

But where does that leave El and his storyline? Sort of shoved to the side. We get plenty of flashbacks, as I said, showing the general killing Carolina. We get El going to recruit two of his mariachi friends to help him with the job Sands has hired him for. We get fight scenes with El and Carolina in the past and we get more fight scenes with El in the present. We see him with Sands, we see him on his own. But thanks to there being so much that’s not related to him, his personal background and mission feel less immediate, which is a pity because that’s where the soul of the first two movies is. As much fun as this movie can be, its soul just isn’t as apparent. Probably because, as I said, Sands is much of the focus and Sands is pretty soulless.

To be honest, the whole thing with Barillo and his body double and whatnot feels like its own plot. In any other movie it would be great! But it’s so different from the tone of the other movies. I’m used to the emotional impact of the movie coming from El’s connection to the major villain and it just isn’t there. There are a couple of key characters, such as Barillo’s man, Billy, AFN agent Ajedrez and former FBI agent Ramirez, who never meet El. They’re involved in the whole coup plot, but they’re connected to Sands, not the mariachis.

Thank goodness for the mariachis, though, because they really are awesome. I can’t even knock the guitar case weaponry for being an old trick because it’s so much fun to watch. I do enjoy the scenes where they talk to El and he tells them what they’ll be doing. I love seeing them case the building they’ll be working in later, actually playing music. I love that they save the day at the end. I just wish they and El had gotten more to do. I wish Carolina had been in more of the movie. I wish the Sands plot had been its own picture, because I don’t dislike it. I like it a lot. But it distracts me from why I love the first two movies. It makes me love this one for an entirely different reason and I’m so very conflicted about that. It’s frustrating. I like this movie a lot, but in many ways I wish it was two movies. I’d love them both, I promise.

May 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

May 7, 2011

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

The third Mariachi movie is the most epic in scale. As is implied by the title, which comes from the most epic and grand of the Sergio Leone westerns. It’s also by far the most complex of the three movies with the most characters and plots to keep track of. There’s the amoral corrupt CIA agent, his muscle and his stoolie, the beleaguered president, the army general attempting a coup, the drug cartel head funding the revolution, his disillusioned right hand man, the retired FBI officer, the hot Mexican police woman… and of course the Mariachi, who has achieved legendary status and is known only as El.

This movie starts out very much like Desperado starts out – with a character narrating the legend of El. This time it’s Cheech Maron as Belini, a low life informant being paid by the nefarious CIA agent Sands to find the ultimate hit man. Sands has this whole plot that he’s trying to set into motion. He wants to replace the president of Mexico (because the president is doing too good a job of unifying the people) so he has arranged for the Barillo drug cartel to fund a coup by general Marquez. Sands doesn’t want Marquez in power either though – which is why he needs El. There’s some kind of bad blood between El and Marquez – something to do with Carolina (who sadly doesn’t have much of a part in this movie.)

The Mariachi, meanwhile, is living in self imposed exile in a little village that has an economy based on manufacturing guitars. That’s until Sands has his goon Cucuy (the ever fantastic Danny Trejo again) hunt El down and force him out of retirement. The funny thing is that this movie isn’t so much about the Mariachi. He’s an unstoppable force of nature in this film – an unpredictable killing machine that Sands is trying to use for his own ends. But the movie it, at least from my perspective, about Sands.

This is at least partially because Sands is played by Johnny Depp with scene stealing pizazz. His casual profanity, complete sense of superiority, awful fashion sense and utter lack of a moral compass makes him such a compelling and fascinating character. And Johnny Depp makes it impossible to look away from the screen when he’s on. It’s his machinations that drive the plot and things really start to get interesting when things don’t work out as he expected.

Not to belittle the other vast talents exhibited in this film. Look at the sheer star power Rodriguez has gathered for this grand send-off to the Mariachi: Willem Dafoe, Eva Mendez, Ruben Blades (the most sympathetic character int eh film as the retired FBI agent who can’t help getting dragged back into the game. Nevermind that I can’t figure out what jurisdiction the FBI would have in Mexico), Mickey Rourke… it goes on and on.

From the powerful iconography of the Mexican populist uprising depicted that stops the military coup to the overwhelming action scenes to the melodrama of El’s rivalry with General Marquez, this entire movie is bigger, and more mythical than either of its predecessors. It has the feeling of being a modern folk tale – which is appropriate given its title. A fitting finale to the Mariachi trilogy. Even if it does make me somewhat long for a Sands trilogy to go after it.

May 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment