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Once Upon a Time in Mexico :
The Last Frontier for the Western Film

by Mel Cartagena

Robert Rodriguez proclaims his influence in his latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, with the credits “Shot, Chopped and Scored by Robert Rodriguez.” “Chopped” is indeed the word that best describes the tight, staccato sequencing during the action scenes, swiftly matched to a musical score that ranges from mellow mariachi tunes to quickening frets when the violence reaches its crescendo. The most visible of the many touches Robert Rodriguez uses to infuse the movie with homage to the westerns of Sergio Leone is in his use of the camera.

In his hands, the interiors of churches and the gubernatorial halls become enormous hallways, with roofs suspended hundreds of feet above the floor and a dizzying perspective in long shots where people can easily be standing a quarter of a mile away while in the background Antonio Banderas escapes by climbing up a column and hiding on the second floor of a church.

Nevertheless Robert Rodriguez takes advantage of the color and flavor of his setting and infuses the movie with a vivacity of execution that Sergio Leone never quite displayed. The impression is that of a movie geek who obsesses over every detail, and has an appreciation for set design and the use of interiors. He cleverly sets us up for the obvious; Mexico as the new backdrop for the old west. The lawlessness of small towns melds with cell phones and the myth of the gunslinger in a vanilla sunshine. The mellow atmosphere conceals an undertone of violence that explodes in comical bursts. He has Cheech Martin acting as an informant telling CIA Agent Sands the story of the tortured El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), the larger than life figure that once took out an entire Mexican village by himself in Desperado.

The tale carries the weight of exaggerated visual gags that give the violence a clownish appeal, but then the story is paused, and retold at a more realistic pace that matches more subdued gunfighting. From that story the recent past of El Mariachi is set, and the sleepy (at first anyway) village where El Mariachi has been hiding unfolds in a series of shots that begin at the enclave where guitar makers sit and manufacture acoustic six-strings by hand; the shots expand in distance and scope until El Mariachi is nearly making love to the guitar the old craftsman gave him, sitting on the roof of a cathedral, enjoying one last moment to himself before mercenaries roll in seeking El Mariachi.

Through flashbacks we learn that Carolina (Salma Hayek) has suffered the same fate as El Mariachi’s previous woman. In fact she only exists in flashback; in the present time she is dead, along with their daughter, and this is that grist that agent Sands (Johnny Depp) uses to nudge El Mariachi out of hiding and into assassinating the man who killed Carolina in the past, and who now is plotting to remove the mayor of a small town.

The most interesting performance of the movie goes to Johnny Depp. As agent Sands he is laconically hip, appearing in a different get-up for every scene. He goes about recruiting the people he needs with offbeat laxness. The subdued intensity in his performances comes through in the shock punchlines he delivers. He sits with each informant or killer at a different restaurant, where he orders the same dish of slow roasted pork and a shot of tequila to wash it down and insisting that the person he meets try it as well, and informs Mariachi that the restaurant they’re sitting on has served him the best pork yet, so good in fact the he’ll shoot the cook after he finishes his meal, because it’ll never be this good again. When Cucuy, played by Danny Trejo, hesitates on a command, Sands tells him, “Are you a Mexi-can...? Or a Mexi-can’t?”

Through the charade he sees his role as that of an equalizer, a force sent to shift the balance of power in the direction that is not necessarily one of righteous good, but one of fairness, aided by an inflamed sense of justice. While he recruits the help of the president’s aide in the middle of a bullfight, he explains that the bull has been tortured and exhausted before the match begun, and tells the man that one has to rig the game to win, at which point Cucuy activates a device that distracts the bullfighter long enough for the bull to gore him. He goes out to collect debt money, which Sands gives to the aide as a bribe.

His performance is capped by that moment in the middle of the revolt between the townspeople and the renegade army led by El Mariachi’s enemy. After having had his eyes gouged out by Barillo (Willem Dafoe in an unusual turn as a Mexican drug lord), Sand strips off his jacket, standing in black shirt, vest and a belt with a hemp leave in its buckle, straps on guns, and goes to a showdown with Barillo’s men, wearing dark shades under which blood is running out of his eyes. It’s a morbidly hilarious image that at once shrugs off an ugly, cruel act and takes a potshot at the myth of the gunslinger.

And this is what saves Once Upon a Time in Mexico from sinking to the level of total cheese. Rodriguez has an awareness of the fine line between offbeat and mundane, comedic and plain silly, and he controls it subtly, to hilarious effect, in the last western frontier left.

Copyright © 2003 by Mel Cartagena

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