- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2003

In case you didn’t notice it from the title, with its reference to a certain classic American Western, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” is spoofy fare. The violence is ultra: Blood splatters the camera lens, eyes are mechanically chiseled out of sockets, and a virtual hailstorm of lead rains down on a provincial Mexican town during a “Day of the Dead” parade in this movie’s climactic coup d’etat.

This from the same guy who gave us the “Spy Kids” franchise. Who’da thunk it?

But Robert Rodriguez, who wrote, directed, scored and “chopped” this, the third in a series of guerrilla-style productions that started with 1992’s “El Mariachi,” has a way of making a bloodbath seem silly and whimsical — inoffensive even.

He’s a master of gallows humor. In one scene, a character offs a cook for the seemingly commendable reason of making an extraordinarily tasty pork dish — and it’s darn funny.

Unfortunately, as the recently released “Spy Kids 3D: Game Over” confirmed, Mr. Rodriguez has a tendency, as both a writer and a helmer, to repeat himself.

“Mexico” isn’t much different in tone and content from “Mariachi” or the 1995 sequel “Desperado.”

There’s another evil drug lord, Barilla (played by a duskified Willem Dafoe), the same acrobatic, dizzyingly edited gun battles and, again, El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) has a score to settle.

The guitar-slinger with more firepower than the 3rd Infantry Division is after a corrupt general, Marquez (Gerardo Vigil), who, somewhere in the interim between “Desperado” and now, killed his lover (Salma Hayek) and infant daughter.

Mr. Rodriguez wastes a lot of celluloid setting up that back story through flashbacks; he does so because he needs room in the foreground for a busy flow of subplots, including a retired FBI agent’s (Ruben Blades) blood grudge against the drug kingpin and the goings-on of a shamming, way-pretty Mexican Federale named Ajedrez played by Eva Mendes (“2 Fast 2 Furious,” “Training Day”).

Things get far too complicated as all these buzzing plots begin to swarm and collide, and they get downright creepy when Barilla’s plan for a post-coup disappearing act is revealed.

The addition of Johnny Depp to the Rodriguez troupe was a master stroke, however. As Sands, a shady CIA agent trying to score a boatload of pesos by simultaneously abetting and thwarting Marquez and Barilla’s plot to overthrow the Mexican president, Mr. Depp steals every scene he’s in.

He’s outfitted with a prosthetic arm that allows him to hide his shooting hand, a gag that works like a schadenfreude charm every time Mr. Rodriguez employs it.

Not so masterful was the inclusion of Enrique Iglesias as one of Mariachi’s wingmen. A singer with a pretty face, Mr. Iglesias shows little sign of charisma on-screen.

The weirdly charismatic Mickey Rourke, playing the kingpin’s henchman with a conscience, carries an adorable little chihuahua — as if he needed such an eccentricity — but is otherwise forgettable.

Like Mr. Dafoe’s, Mr. Rourke’s talent is wasted on a toothless, flimsily written character.

Still, “Mexico” works at least as often as it flounders, and it’s always a pleasure to see an action movie with a sharp sense of humor.

**1/2

TITLE: “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”

RATING: R (Pervasive violence; profanity)

CREDITS: Written, directed, scored, edited and photographed by Robert Rodriguez. Produced by Mr. Rodriguez, Elizabeth Avellan and Carlos Gallardo.

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes, partly in Spanish with English subtitles.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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