But Leone developed similar elements into films that ran more than three hours. Rodriguez packs it all into 97 minutes and can't help but give only suggestions of a plot and impressions of the forces that drive it. Nevertheless, once the bullets start flying and the one-liners start ricocheting, it doesn't matter much that Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a confusing mess of a film. When it works, you don't care about all the times it doesn't.
The story, such as it is, goes something like this: the Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) is forced out of quiet retirement by the slithering, corrupt CIA agent Sands (Johnny Depp), who asks him to intervene in an assassination attempt on the president of Mexico. Sands reports that the murder will take place during a coup attempt by General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil) - a man in love with the Mariachi's wife (Salma Hayek) and the only person who can compel him to kill again. The coup and assassination is orchestrated by Barilla (Willem Dafoe), the popular leader of a powerful drug cartel who has his sights set on ascending to the presidency. But Sands has also set in motion Jorge (Ruben Blades), a retired FBI agent with a beef to settle with Barilla, hoping to further confuse the attempt on the president so he escape with the 20 million pesos promised to General Marquez.
That's a lot of stories to keep straight, but after his initial attempts Rodriguez doesn't even try. Once he starts slapping the plot together the only way you can tell what is motivating a character is by who he's got his gun pointed at. Exciting shootouts are the only constant in this chaos and a phalanx of weapons blow through much of the narrative mumbo-jumbo thrown at the audience. Shrapnel flies through the air like rice at a wedding. Bodies are indiscriminately crushed behind semi trucks, buses, tanks, etc. Faces are removed, eyes are gouged, throats are slit, and chefs are wantonly killed for making good food. Rodriguez saturates his violence with an adolescent boy's giddy love for mayhem, and it is infectious.
Unfortunately for Banderas's Mariachi, when things aren't blowing up, it's CIA agent Sands that carries the film. Depp's presence is alone worth the price of admission. With goofy wardrobe changes, shockingly violent personality quirks and the best lines in the film ("I'll shoot the cook. I'm parked out back.") Depp turns Sands into Mexico's answer to Colonel Kurtz channeling Hunter S. Thompson. Depp chews up scenery, other actors, and heaping plates of marinated pork as he swaggers through his scenes with a malevolent ease that reveals the film's general goal of good fun.
And sloppy as it is, Once Upon a Time in Mexico somehow manages to remain fun for most of its 97 minutes. Rodriguez fans will especially appreciate the numerous references to both El Mariachi and Desperado, including a dog named Moco and a familiar young boy who becomes Sand's guide. Others will let the pandemonium wash over them and remember it as a good time, even if they can't remember what the hell the movie is about.
"Step back! I have some weird metal stuff in my hand!"
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: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 68%
Fresh: 111 Rotten: 52
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenwriter: 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