'Once Upon a Time' a fitting finale


Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek star in the action-adventure "Once Upon a Time in Mexico."

COLUMBIA PICTURES
Published: Friday, January 30, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 29, 2004 at 10:42 p.m.

In 1993, a young Mexican-American filmmaker from Austin, Texas, made a low-budget action movie for the Spanish language market. He wrote, directed, produced, handled cinematography and helped with special effects. He edited the movie on two VCRs at home.

The director's name is Robert Rodriguez. His debut, "El Mariachi" was made for $7,000, financed mostly on his credit cards. The film is a textbook example and how to make the most out of a low budget. It proved to be an underground success and opened many doors for Rodriguez.

In 1995, Rodriguez had a blockbuster year. His "Mariachi" sequel, "Desperado," was the best action film of the year, and his collaboration with Quentin Tarantino "From Dusk Till Dawn" gave him a much wider audience.

Here's where it gets interesting.

Rodriguez didn't like the big-budget studio mentality. He didn't like answering to people and being told what kind of movies he could make. Just like with "Mariachi," he wanted complete creative control over his movies.

After a bumpy start, Rodriguez found his groove. He became a pioneer by shooting his movies entirely with digital cameras, which allowed him to edit and create amazing post-production special effects from his home workshop (George Lucas now is shooting his crappy new "Star Wars" pictures digitally).

The result: He makes the movies he wants to make.

Ten years into his career, he has two great trilogies under his belt: the "Spy Kids" franchise and his modern day answer to Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns - the "Mariachi" trilogy.

Now that you have been sufficiently educated on the greatness of Rodriguez, we can get down to brass tacks. Last week, the final installment of the Mariachi trilogy hit the video stores. It's called "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," and it is his attempt at a blood-and-guts epic.

"El Mariachi" was about a traveling guitar player (Carlos Gallardo) who is mistaken for a criminal who carries a guitar case full of guns. The Mariachi ends up with the guns and defends himself against the forces of drug lord Moco. But not without taking a bullet to the hand, ending his days as a mariachi.

"El Mariachi" is a good little movie. But truth be told, it's enjoyable because Rodriguez put so much effort into it and had so much fun making it.

In "Desperado," the Mariachi is played by Antonio Banderas.

He is excellent, might I add, as he travels from town to town, waging war on drug dealers and engaging in some quality bar fights.

In one small town, he falls in love with Salma Hayek and wants to settle one last thing before he gives up his life of guns and revenge. That "one last thing" is local drug czar Bucho, who runs a small army of killers and rules the entire town.

"Desperado" is a classic action movie. It's cool, funny, good looking and delivers some incredibly inventive gunfights.

Throw in Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Joaquim de Almeida, and you've got an underground classic.

Banderas returns in "Once Upon a Time," a beaten and bruised man. It seems that after a series of explosive adventures, his wife (Hayek) and daughter were gunned down by Gen. Marquez. The Mariachi lives quietly in a guitar-making village until some armed thugs drag him into a meeting with rogue secret agent Sands (the incomparable Johnny Depp).

Sands wants the Mariachi to kill Marquez, who is planning a coup detat of Mexico. Now, here's where the movie gets tricky to describe clearly in less than 10,000 words. There a series of related storylines involving Willem Defoe, Reuben Blades, Trejo, Eva Mendes, Mickey Rourke and Enrique Eglesias involving the attempted coup and murder of El Presidente.

And that is the only thing dragging this movie down.

It's visually bold and vibrant with some fabulous stunts and good action. The acting is uniformly great, and it contains some of the funniest moments I've seen in a long time (CIA agent Depp wearing a CIA T-shirt and giving away bribes in "Clash of the Titans" lunch pails).

But it's so complex!

So many characters with so many storylines. It all gets a little too complicated for its own good. Banderas is a good lead in these films, a commanding figure of penitent violence. But he doesn't get as much screen time as he should, as there are too many other people in the way.

Same goes for Depp. He lights up his every scene with a brilliant sense of delivery and comic timing.

Sure, he's a good dramatic actor, but after seeing "Pirates" and "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," I think he's probably the most brilliant comic actor working today. Sorry, Ray Romano.

This isn't a perfect movie; none of them are, but it's got a lot of great moments and a great cast of characters. And it does give a fittingly over-the-top conclusion to a trio of films that were over the top to begin with.

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