[box cover]

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Robert Rodriguez wrote, directed, shot, edited, and even composed the music for Once Upon a Time In Mexico (2003), and while the extra features on this DVD make it difficult not to admire the down-to-earth enthusiasm of this indie polymath, watching the feature itself glaringly betrays the workmanlike qualities of his many skills. The third flick in Rodriguez's signature series, OUATIM revisits the same stale material from his low-budget breakthrough El Mariachi, and its big-budget remake Desperado: A glowering mariachi-with-no-name (the vacuous Antonio Banderas) wreaks balletic and violent revenge on those what's wronged him. Rodriguez tries to spice up this installment with an additional handful of characters and sub-plots, but his screenwriting is so ordinary that the ensemble effect is one of a many-layered indifference, and his penchant for nice visual ideas falls woefully short of infusing any energy or coherence into the slipshod narrative. Johnny Depp provides the film's best moments as a maverick, amoral CIA spook attempting to pull the many strings of a burgeoning coup-d'etat, but the material is consistently beneath him. Even Depp seems to lose interest, and halfway through begins resurrecting his Hunter S. Thompson quirks, before morphing into Edward Scissorshands for the underwhelming finale. Occasionally, Rodriguez conjures a nice stunt or image, but they all seem to reference a more effective inspiration (the film's best sequence, a dazzling stunt piece during which Banderas and Salma Hayek escape from attackers while chained at the wrist, recalls the superior similar sequence in Jackie Chan's rollicking Project A, Part II), and even his title plays against him by evoking the operatic majesty of Sergio Leone's masterful Once Upon a Time in the West. Rodriguez hasn't the patience, style, nor storyteller's heart for a film of the mythic proportions one might have expected (and which the movie's final shot seems to suggest it accomplished), and he typically undercuts his appealing cinematography with overactive editing and a dearth of context. OUATIM is a depressingly dull and derivative bag of empty promises that makes no effort to profit from a cast that includes the likes of Willem Dafoe, Ruben Blades, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, and the unfortunate Mickey Rourke (who only bows to Michael Jackson in the ill-advised plastic surgery department). That said, the extra features on this OUATIM DVD are terrific, and most of that is due to Rodriguez's eminently likable thumbing of the nose at Hollywood traditions. In addition to his commentary alongside the feature, he also appears in multiple featurettes detailing his low-budget approach to special effects, his geek-salivating garage studio decked out with hi-tech A/V gear, his dismissal of film as a relevant medium with the advent of flexible HD, and his delectable cooking, all of which make one want to like his movies much more than they warrant. He also comments on eight deleted scenes, a few which he claims to have finished simply for posterity on this DVD. There is also a music and effects-only audio track, which highlights the prosaic and schizophrenic score. The feature is presented in an anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) and looks great, taken from the HD source, with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The film is in English and Spanish, with English subtitles over the Spanish dialogue, but this reviewer found the selection of the optional English or French subtitles triggered a bug in which turning off the additional subtitles would default to French subtitles for all Spanish-speaking parts of the film. A complete player-shutdown was required to revert to the normal default settings. At one point, fidgeting with this quirk became more interesting than the movie itself. Trailers, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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