Cutting loose between "Spy Kids" assignments, Robert Rodriguez returns to his genre roots in "Once Upon a Time in Mexico." Resurrecting the gun-slinging guitar player for the third time after "El Mariachi" and "Desperado," the new entry inhabits a more epic dimension evokes the mythic feel of Sergio Leone Westerns.

Cutting loose between “Spy Kids” assignments, Robert Rodriguez returns to his genre roots — albeit with greater technical means and an A-list cast — in “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” Resurrecting the gun-slinging guitar player for the third time after “El Mariachi” and “Desperado,” the new entry inhabits a more epic dimension and — as the title suggests — evokes the mythic feel of Sergio Leone Westerns. Despite a convoluted plot that begs for cleaner lines, the wild shoot-outs, cartoonish violence and charismatic cast should lure action fans to theaters in significant numbers, followed by rowdy home entertainment trade.

Fact that the multihyphenate filmmaker is clearly having fun here is underlined by credits like “shot, chopped and scored by Robert Rodriguez.” In addition to those duties and to writing and directing, Rodriguez also served as production designer, re-recording mixer and visual effects supervisor, with much of the post-production carried out at the director’s Troublemaker facilities in Austin, Texas.

Made on a modest budget and displaying a refined version of the technical resourcefulness that first put Rodriguez on the map with the $7,000 “El Mariachi,” the new pic also serves as a testament to the advancements in visual quality of digital video. Shot with Sony 24-frames-per-second digital high-definition cameras and almost indiscernibly blown up to widescreen 35mm, the film has remarkable visual depth and clarity, not to mention rich, scorching color.

Setting the tone in a larger-than-life register that mixes reality with fantasy, an amusing pre-titles sequence re-introduces both the singing pistolero (Antonio Banderas) and his sultry inamorata, Carolina (Salma Hayek), in a bloody clash with a crew of villainous scum, as retold with embellishments by Belini (Cheech Marin) to rogue CIA agent Sands (Johnny Depp). Belini reveals that el Mariachi’s chief adversary, General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil), did not die in the fight but lives on.

The story picks up on the guitar player living in isolation, smoldering with psychological scars after the murder of Carolina and their daughter. A romantic back-story is patched together through memory sequences. El Mariachi enlists help from his crooning sidekicks (Enrique Iglesias, Marco Leonardi) after he is recruited by Sands to intervene in a coup d’etat. Plot is being orchestrated by General Marquez and cartel kingpin Barrillo (Willem Dafoe), who plan to assassinate the Mexican president (Pedro Armendariz Jr.) during the Day of the Dead celebrations. Barrillo also has a price on el Mariachi’s head.

An elaborate web of double-crossing and deceit gradually emerges as Sands begins playing off various elements against each other. Lack of focus and delineation in the overburdened, messy plot is exacerbated by the blur between Marquez and Barrillo as key villains, and by the latter’s poorly illustrated scheme to kill off a look-alike and start fresh with a surgically altered face.

The backdrop of impending revolution also is unsatisfyingly sketched, as is Barrillo’s double role as vicious murdering drug lord and friend-to-the-people folk hero. And affable as they are, el Mariachi’s sidekicks also serve no real purpose, though music chart heartthrob Iglesias makes a respectable screen bow.

Far more effective are the digressions to recap the Mariachi’s relationship with Carolina, which expand on the seed of the earlier movies and lend breadth and soulfulness to this final installment. And one scene in particular, involving the sexy couple’s escape from a fifth-floor hotel room while chained together, is arguably the most exciting of the pic’s many action sequences.

Rodriguez knowingly uses Banderas as an iconic figure given to few words, strutting through gunbattles more like a flamenco dancer than a killer. Hayek makes a ballsy impression in her fleeting appearances, but other cast members appear to be along for the joyride with little time to flesh out fully developed characters. Main exception is Depp, who follows his enormously enjoyable work in “Pirates of the Caribbean” with another inventive turn, finding the sly comedy and even an unexpected paternal side behind his character’s cool cruelty.

Rodriguez’s muscular camerawork is matched by his exhilarating editing — especially during the visceral gunplay set pieces — and backed by his driving score, which blends Mexican guitar themes with suspenseful Latino orchestral work. Production design also is sharp, making good use of dusty locations, rustic bars and classic Mexican architecture.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment (U.S.)/Miramax Films (international) release of a Columbia Pictures/Dimension Films presentation of a Troublemaker Studios production of a Robert Rodriguez film. (International sales: Miramax Intl., New York.) Produced by Elizabeth Avellan, Carlos Gallardo, Robert Rodriguez. Co-producers, Tony Mark, Luz Maria Rojas, Sue Jett. Directed, written, edited by Robert Rodriguez.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, DV-to-35mm, widescreen), Rodriguez; music, Rodriguez; production designer, Rodriguez; art director, Meno Hinjosa; costume designer, Graciela Mazon; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Ed Novick; visual effects supervisor, Daniel Leduc, Rodriguez; stunt coordinator, Jeff Dashnaw; assistant director, Brian Bettwy; casting, Mary Vernieu. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting), Aug. 27, 2003. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 101 MIN. (English, Spanish dialogue)

With

El Mariachi - Antonio Banderas Carolina - Salma Hayek Sands - Johnny Depp Billy Chambers - Mickey Rourke Ajedrez - Eva Mendes Cucuy - Danny Trejo Lorenzo - Enrique Iglesias Fideo - Marco Leonardi Belini - Cheech Marin Jorge - Ruben Blades Barrillo - Willem Dafoe Marquez - Gerardo Vigil President - Pedro Armendariz Jr.
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