If Desperado failed to make sense as “sequel” to El Mariachi for a variety of reasons (timeline, repetition of events, characters), then Once Upon a Time in Mexico only muddies those waters further by offering yet another take on why El Mariachi is so driven to eliminate crime from Mexico. On one hand, the film works excellently as another crooked link in the ever-expanding mythology of El Mariachi whose story, told with a waver in the teller’s voice in many cantinas in Mexico, evolves and changes each time it's told. Steve Buscemi did an excellent job as one such modifier of the myth in Desperado, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico starts in a similar vein with flashbacks recounting the death of El Mariachi’s love that wasn’t in Desperado or El Mariachi nor that makes too much sense when compared to the basic story of the first “sequel”. On the other hand, considering the huge boost in the ensemble cast and the shift in the titular character’s backstory, Once Upon a Time in Mexico almost has nothing to do with El Mariachi (the character) whatsoever. It is more a tale of the CIA and a coup d’etat in Mexico than it is a continuation of El Mariachi’s story, yet it manages to keep the same comical slant that Rodriguez imbued the original with.
Mexico’s Day of the Dead approaches and with it comes the looming threat of a coup d’etat mounted by the country’s most powerful crimelord, Barillo (Willem Dafoe), and his military lackey General Emiliano Marquez (Gerardo Vigil). Coming to the state’s rescue is lone CIA agent Sheldon Sands (Johnny Depp) and his guitar-toting gun-for-hire El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas). El Mariachi has a storied past that no one seems to have a definitive account of as evidenced by the contradictory account of how he lost the love of his life (Salma Hayek) at the hands of Marquez (flashbacks for which are intercut throughout the first half of the film). In the midst of this convoluted tale of political intrigue is an AFN operative (Eva Mendes), a former FBI agent (Ruben Blades), an American fugitive (Mickey Rourke), and a pre-Machete Danny Trejo. How the stories all intertwine has a lot to do with the film’s twists and turns, but it becomes very clear very quickly that the story is more about agent Sands, Barillo, and the AFN agent moreso than El Mariachi and his two musical partners in crime (Enrique Iglesias, Marco Leonardi).
What we’re left with is a non-sequel irrespective of its source material with a focus shifted from the series’ main character but created by the one man who deserves the right to play in the sandbox however he wishes, Robert Rodriguez. If you can’t measure it in context of the two films that came before it, you have to treat it like the typical political-thriller with action elements that it is. Rodriguez’s strengths don’t lie in his ability to tell a story with lots of unexpected twists and subtlety; they lie in his ability to ramp the action over the top, throw in some crazy stunts and gunfights, and leave us chuckling all the while. Once Upon a Time in Mexico succeeds there, but because it also tries to be that political thriller – it also partially fails. The Sheldon Sands storyline is truly entertaining (Depp should take more roles like this one) but it’s not too well executed and just feels like exactly what it is: a director/writer trying to use all the new toys in his sandbox but failing to do so with the efficacy necessary to make a great film.
Of all three Mariachi films, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is the one with the most visual flair and because of that it’s the best looking on Blu-ray. With so many explosions, gunfights and stunts the crystal clear picture makes the action look beautiful, something only made better by Rodriguez’s particular style. The audio also sounds superb with explosions left and right, a spicy salsa soundtrack (with plenty of guitar, of course), and it makes this Blu-ray worth purchasing from a technical front even if it’s a rather flawed film.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
Just like with the El Mariachi & Desperado Double Feature Blu-ray, the Once Upon a Time in Mexico Blu-ray just ports all the extras from the original DVD release and adds a lone subpar extra which, while exclusive to Blu-ray, only lets you splice the film into a video of your creation and share online. It’s a paltry extra feature compared to the picture-in-picture video commentary that many filmmakers are making for the Blu-ray rereleases of their films. Otherwise, the ported extras from the DVD release include the original audio commentary with Rodriguez, a look at his studios, a lesson in filmmaking, deleted scenes, a cooking lesson as a throwback to agent Sands’ obsession with culinary perfection, an interview with Rodriguez, a look at the El Mariachi character, and a featurettes on the film’s special effects and stunts.
"Once Upon a Time in Mexico" is on sale January 4, 2011 and is rated R. Action. Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez. Starring Antonio Banderas, Danny Trejo, Eva Mendes, Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke, Salma Hayek, Willem Dafoe, Enrique Iglesias.