Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Review — Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
Johnny Depp is like a giant thundering tornado that storms into a small urban community in the middle of nowhere, ripping apart everything in sight, taking charge with a force that no one can contend with. He turned a mediocre pirate movie into an entertaining comic ride that featured a raucous award-worthy performance from the actor, and then he returned to the screen in Robert Rodriguez’s “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” a fun but meaningless film that’s so energized and rejuvenated by his fantastic performance, one has to wonder if it had been possible for this movie to focus solely on his character.
One of the most needlessly complicated action movies since “Mission: Impossible,” the movie tells the story of El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), who’s out for, what else, some revenge. His wife Carolina (Salma Hayek) and daughter were long ago killed by one of the film’s many villains, General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil), and El is recruited by the eccentric Sands (Depp) to murder the man.
Other characters add more or less to the plot, such as Barillo (Willem Dafoe), who is working to assassinate the President of Mexico; Ajedrez (Eva Mendes), an unappreciated FBI agent on the trail of Sands and the murder conspiracy; and Lorenzo (Enrique Iglesias) and Lorenzo (Marco Leonardi), who join El Mariachi on his vengeful journey. Belini (Cheech Marin) even pops up at the beginning essentially to give the audience a plot summary of all that’s happened before the flick even gets going.
An obvious nod to Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” and the third and final entry in the El Mariachi trilogy (following 1992’s “El Mariachi” and 1995’s “Desperado”), “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” doesn’t try to be anything more than an action flick that requires its audience to suspend disbelief at all times while the hero dodges dozens of bullets only to then take out every bad guy with his guitar gun. The first and third acts of the film have really good energy, as Rodriguez never holds back with his guerrilla filmmaking style in the midst of the mayhem.
Banderas feels right at home. Even though his performance is practically one-note the entire film, he exudes passion in his perseverance to get his wife’s killer, and he’s always fun to watch. Hayek cashes in a quick check; not to this extent before has an actress been featured so prominently on billboards and trailers only to then appear in the actual movie for about five minutes.
Depp is truly the star and savior of this movie. With only nine shooting days on the set, he’s actually in a whole lot more than one might expect, and he makes the most of every scene. He oozes charm at all times, with his hilarious apathy to most of his surroundings and his constant sarcasm to those around him.
The movie finds its brilliance in its moments with Depp, as can be seen in the last 30 minutes. When something unimaginable happens to his facial features, he doesn’t predictably lose all composure. Instead he treats his physical ailment simply as a small burden, and he doesn’t even care to wipe all the dry blood from his face. What happens further with his character from here is nothing short of exhilarating.
Other performances in the movie are nothing more than mediocre. Mendes is criminally underused, and Dafoe makes an unmemorable villain. The biggest oddity is the casting of music superstar Enrique Iglesias in his film debut as one of Banderas’s sidekicks. It’s a very small role, and he doesn’t do much of anything, except light some guys on fire with his guitar case flamethrower.
The movie’s faults lie in its ambition to be some sort of epic. Rodriguez handles so many plots and characters that after awhile things get confusing and tiresome. There is a lot going on in this movie, and if one scene doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, then the next scene will take on a whole new complication. Total concentration is needed for the talky scenes in the movie.
The action also isn’t much to get excited about; various gunfights and explosions relieve the audience from having to follow another subplot, but they don’t bring a whole lot to the movie. In fact the very best action sequence involves Banderas and Hayek swinging down a five-story building with a chain linking their bodies together, yet this scene isn’t as exciting as it could have been because it’s merely a flashback.
“Once Upon a Time in Mexico” won’t change any lives, but it’s fun while it lasts. It drags a little in its second act, but Johnny Depp takes the material and raises it to another level.
Watching Like a Writer
Once Upon a Time in Mexico and many of Robert Rodriguez’s movies make me think about how to write an action-driven story that has at the heart of it characters you care about. I recently wrote a thriller novel that is essentially one long car chase, and the most difficult aspect of writing the book was making sure the reader cares about the two central characters the same time all the crazy action is going on. When you’re able to blend both — amazing action and three-dimensional characters — whether in a film, or a short story, or a novel, you can create something truly spectacular.
Write a short scene of two characters driving away from a bomb about to explode, and make me sincerely care about the characters before the story is over.