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'Once Upon a Time in Mexico'

Depp comes to the rescue of 'Mexico'

Friday, September 12, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

Shot, chopped and scored" by Robert Rodriguez, the credits say -- a refreshingly crisp way of announcing that "cinematography, editing and musical composition" are by the same man who also wrote and directed the film.


'Once Upon a Time in Mexico'

RATING: R for strong violence and language

STARRING: Johnny Depp, Antonio Banderas, Willem Dafoe, Selma Hayek, Enrique Iglesias, Mickey Rourke, Cheech Marin

DIRECTOR: Robert Rodriguez


What didn't Rodriguez do on this picture? He was evidently everything except key grip and gaffer. Which relates to both the agony and ecstasy of "Once Upon a Time in Mexico."

Come to find out, if you didn't know before, it's the third installment of a grandiose -- if not necessarily grand -- trilogy beginning with "El Mariachi" (1992), followed up by its reworking in "Desperado" (1995), starring Antonio Banderas as a singing guitarist-vigilante (There's a hybrid for you) in love with sultry siren Selma Hayek.

But neither Antonio nor Selma is the star of this film. Johnny Depp is -- and he's terrific, playing the corrupt CIA agent who coaxes Banderas out of vigilante-guitarist retirement to help foil an assassination plot against the Mexican head of state.

This reminds me of an old joke -- "He's so dumb, he thinks Manual Labor is the president of Mexico" -- but never mind. Depp is no dumber in the ways of Mexican intrigue than such other nefarious gringos as Willem Dafoe, an evil cartel kingpin, or Mickey Rourke. And Depp is a lot cuter.

Cuter, for instance, than either of Banderas' two sidekicks, Enrique Iglesias or Marco Leonardi. Iglesias, the crooner, is supposed to be a homage to Ricky Nelson in "Rio Bravo." The movie itself, stunningly filmed in high-definition video, is Rodriguez's homage to Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood and George Miller's "The Road Warrior."

It's one or two homages too many.

The most interesting thing that can be said about Selma Hayek in her tiny role is that she has two eyebrows here instead of the one in "Frida."

Ah, but then there's Johnny Depp -- how we love him! The finest young actor of our day, Depp almost saves the picture. Almost, but not quite. Nothing can save "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" from the pretentious hokum of its story line, which is merely an excuse for the fitful, stylized violence that -- however visually stunning -- makes it an epileptic rather than epic exercise.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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