"Desperado," the second eye-poppingly stylish and unabashedly outlandish B-movie in Robert Rodriguez's "El Mariachi" shoot-'em-up trilogy, is one of my all-time favorite action movies, in part because it has its priorities straight: The plot was simple -- a nameless mariachi avenges his girlfriend's murder with a guitar case full of semi-automatic weapons and an endless supply of ammunition -- and the action was non-stop and over-the-top.
Antonio Banderas cut an imposing, mysterious, hell-bent, dangerous and dead sexy figure in his long hair, implacable glower and black suede bandito get-up -- complete with jangling spurs -- as he performed a limber slow-motion ballet of body-twisting, two-fisted gunfire while dodging hails of bullets from evil drug-runners. And all this was set to a steamy, dynamic south-of-the-border score by the great guitaristas of Los Lobos.
But in the new installment, "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," writer-director-editor-composer Rodriguez pollutes the action -- which is uncharacteristically erratic, incongruous and over-edited -- with a needlessly convoluted plot involving 1) a thorny coup attempt against the Mexican president backed by a cartel kingpin (Willem Dafoe) and his turncoat henchman (Mickey Rourke), 2) a crooked and borderline-loco CIA agent (Johnny Depp) playing both sides against the middle, 3) a former FBI agent (Ruben Blades) frustrated with not nailing the kingpin before his retirement, 4) a curvaceous, gung-ho greenhorn federale (Eva Mendez) with ulterior motives, and 5) yet another murder, played out in fantasized-action flashbacks, that the mariachi is out to avenge.
Further packed with elaborate deceptions and double-crosses, dream sequences, doppelgangers and baits-and-switches that take away from the already depreciated thrills, "Mexico" feels almost as if Rodriguez is making it up as he goes -- like a little kid playing cops and robbers (convenient getaway motorcycles appear out of nowhere during one shootout) -- and making few editorial choices along the way. The film includes, for example, two other gun-toting mariachis (one woodenly played by crooner Enrique Iglesias) that could have been completely excised without consequence.
With all this story excess taking away from the action excess, the movie doesn't begin to measure up to its predecessors -- even with its great cast, many of whom are also regulars in Rodriguez's family-friendlier "Spy Kids" movies. Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin and Salma Hayek reprise their roles as a Mexican assassin, an underhanded bartender and the mariachi's sultry, scantily-clad squeeze who has learned to be quite dangerous herself. Dafoe and Rourke may be typecast as pockmarked villains, but they go at it with gusto.
Depp gives a consummately off-kilter performance as the unpredictable, possibly deranged CIA spook who is the movie's distinctively oddball comic relief, always sporting either really bad disguises or crazy T-shirts ("I'm with stupid" reads one, with a hand pointing to his groin).
But against this backdrop of increasingly bloody hullabaloo (bleeding, empty eye sockets anyone?), Banderas is comparatively invisible as the man-of-few-words mariachi, who has been turned into an assassin-for-hire, making him far less sympathetic. He's not even the centerpiece of many of the both-barrels-blazing action scenes, some of which go to great lengths to indulge Depp unnecessarily.
"Mexico" may have the "Mariachi" series' visual flair and flourish. It may have retained its predecessors' campy cool. But when John-Woo-rivaling gunplay and precision-executed fireballs take a back seat to manifold political intrigue that would give Tom Clancy a headache, you've done your tongue-in-cheek, check-your-brain action movie a disservice.
"Desperado" and the shoe-stringingly ingenious "El Mariachi" (made for $7,000, it went on to win at Sundance in 1993) have just come out in a DVD special edition two-pack that you can buy for less than two movie tickets and a small bag of popcorn. I say stay home with the first two flicks and wait for this one to arrive on video too.
Run time: 102 mins
In Theaters: Friday 12th September 2003
Box Office USA: $55.8M
Box Office Worldwide: $41.8M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Releasing
Production compaines: Miramax Films, Columbia Pictures Corporation
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 68%
Fresh: 111 Rotten: 52
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Antonio Banderas as El Mariachi, Salma Hayek as Carolina, Johnny Depp as Sands, Eva Mendes as Ajedrez, Mickey Rourke as Billy, Danny Trejo as Cucuy, Enrique Iglesias as Lorenzo, Cheech Marin as Belini, Willem Dafoe as Barillo, Marco Leonardi as Fideo