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The UnPopular Opinion: Once Upon A Time In Mexico

3 years agoby:

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THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!

ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO is a movie that I loved nigh-on unequivocally upon my first viewing.  It also marked one of the very first times where I felt compelled to share my movie-watching experience with others, and so I immediately called up two of my friends, arranged a sleep-over, and we all had a blast with Rodriguez' fun-as-hell ode to Mexico, over-the-top action, and general badassery. 

Now, I thought I was definitely in the majority with that opinion.  But if the Strike Back comments for my review of PLANET TERROR from last week are anything to go by, it seems that enjoying ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO actually puts me in the minority.  So perhaps I can tell you my reasons as to why this flick works as well as it does for me, though of course my love is no longer necessarily as unequivocal as it once was.  I'll tell you this right now though: it is my firm belief that ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO works in a way nearly unique amongst the canon of Robert Rodriguez movies, with his characters, action beats, and storytelling beats all being bolstered by very distinct intention and direction.  I'll even go so far as to say that it's easily one of Rodriguez' very best movies.  Top two maybe.

Mexico 2

"Who are you guys?" "Sons of Mexico, sir."

By sixteen minutes in to the movie (the meeting of El Mariachi and Agent Sands) Rodriguez has set up almost everything we need to know about the main players in the story, and more importantly, he has already introduced us to what they wish to achieve and what they're willing to do for the sake of that desire.  By forty four minutes in (shortly after Sands' meeting with Ajedrez) all of the pieces are in their very general place and we've moved smoothly into the large and detailed arc that is the movie's second act.  Rodriguez wastes exactly zero time, shots, or character beats in those opening forty four minutes, settling instead for having each moment be relevant and revealing.  And yes, I mean exactly zero.  Even the flashback sequences that occur during the movie have purpose in the moment they occur - none of them are shown just because Rodriguez decided to have put them there.  They all are clearly motivated something, sparked by the conflict possessing El Mariachi's mind in a given scene.

Does an absurd moment such as Sands' shooting of the cook make ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO conform to my above belief in zero wasted moments? Hell yes, because it allows Sands to demonstrate via action his willingness to do whatever is necessary to achieve his stated desire of revolution.  It allows him, unlike many other movies by many other directors, to show rather than tell.  To prove, rather than speak an empty promise.  And while the moment demonstrates certain qualities in Sands' personality and character, it also allows for a certain humor to be gleaned from its absurdity.  I'll come back to the movie's humor in a moment, but first I want to talk a bit more about character as it really does make a huge difference.

When we meet Agent Sands, he has a fake arm attached at the shoulder while his real arm lies under the table pointing a gun at the man he is set to meet.  We don't know that he has the fake arm on until he removes it and brings his real arm and gun up above the table - it's a pretty damn cool reveal, but it's also more than that.  Like the aforementioned murder of the cook, it tells us a great deal about Sands' character and his position in this world.  We know who he is, how he views others, how others view him, and what he has to do to survive in this place.  And therein the crux of it lies.  It isn't just a cool moment, it also means something much greater.  It isn't just cool, it speaks volumes as well.  This then is one of the main factors which separates ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO from so many of Rodriguez' other flicks. Things rarely ever succumb to the trap of being "just cool." So to do is there a world of meaning with El Mariachi's introduction, wherein we see him willing to give himself up almost immediately in order to protect the innocent people of the village he has been living in. 

Mexico 4

“You want me to shoot the cook?” “No, I’LL shoot the cook. My car’s parked out back anyway.”

Another factor in what separates ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO is the humor.  It's one of the more important aspects that makes this movie interesting and enjoyable and something like PLANET TERROR the exact opposite.  Small moments of humor pepper ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO, moments that make all the difference by consistently serving to lighten moments and prevent them from delving either into an overly-serious place or a self-mocking place.  Both places would weaken the movie's power, momentum, and impact, and thankfully Rodriguez never lets himself stray there. 

This fact all comes down to the placement of his humor, with hilarious little throw-away lines and moments such as 1) the squeaking of the bar as it moves in and out of the opening gunfight, 2) the image of a three-armed Agent Sands looking intently around the restaurant, 3) Agent Sands putting the wrong glove on in the middle of his intense suiting-up sequence, and 4) the line "I was tortured once.  I didn't like it."  Without those moments ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO would have had a much greater chance of quickly devolving into a somewhat tedious slog through moments of personal and national importance, but with them? Rodriguez balances the events of his movie, offsets the action and dramatic beats, and thereby allows them to mean more when they do happen.

Mexico 7

"Why me?" "Frankly, because you've got nothing to live for... and in a way you're already dead and Marquez is the one that killed you so why not return the favor?"

There are certain frustrations with this flick that I would definitely agree are well founded.  As much fun as it is to witness the transformation of Agent Sands into a blind gunslinger, ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO is fundamentally the sequel to DESPERADO and I would have much preferred to see Rodriguez bring greater depth to El Mariachi's story rather than reducing him to what is little more than a supporting role. While one may argue that what Rodriguez is doing in ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO is sidelining El Mariachi to further emphasize his legendary status by via a hazy presence that flits in and out of the action, I'd argue that Rodriguez just got a bit caught up in all his intricate plotting. 

Which leads to the second justified complaint about this flick - while the plot may not necessarily be difficult to follow, there's still a great deal of crosses and double crosses and characters and motivations to keep track of.  Keeping the focus mainly on El Mariachi and expanding his story would have allowed Rodriguez to have an already-established center around which the other elements in play could rotate.

I would also add that the score, also by Rodriguez, is serviceable but not all too inspiring.  Rodriguez is praised often enough for his technical know-how, and while the way he shoots ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO and his methods for achieving the various special effects are impressive enough, his score stands out as rather boring by comparison.  While on the subject of "the way he shoots [the movie],"I feel I should add that I love how the whole hospital sequence surrounding Barillo's surgery is shot like a horror movie.  It's a very sneaky yet effective way to ramp up the movie's tension and our investment in its events.

Mexico 3

"Fortunately for you, nothing you did is worth dying for. You have only seen too much. We are going to make sure this does not happen again."

Fundamentally though, ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO is a movie that is about something beyond the characters, and it is here that we find the final (yet most important) factor that elevates this flick above Rodriguez' others.  Because it is about something that is at once deeper and larger than the individual characters, or the coolness of the action sequences, or the delicious-looking Puerco Pibil.  While there are of course elements that make this a personal tale, it is at its heart a national tale, one which uses the struggles and motivations of its characters to paint a grander picture. 

It's worth noting that so many of the movie's important lines are spoken in Spanish (see the final exchange between El Mariachi and Marquez about Carolina) - this is story about the country of Mexico, about the reclamation of a legendary past as it struggles with the iron grip of a callous and selfish present.  "Men like Barillo have stolen this country's soul" says the President to his aide, and he's right.  They have, and so Rodriguez has crafted a tale in response to this fact which brings the villains down by the honor, love, and devotion of men who begin as revenge-fueled mercenaries but become something more.  They become, as quoted at the beginning of this review, "Sons of Mexico."  Everything else that once bound them down has been stripped away, and in the final shot we see El Mariachi kiss the Presidential sash (which is made up of the colors of Mexico's flag) as he walks down the road towards a free and uncertain future.

Mexico 9

"This story is well-traveled. It might have picked up some embellishments along the way. Just read between the lines."

Source: JoBlo.com

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11:22AM on 03/29/2012
This movie was terrible, and the scene when Johnny Depp was blind but still could pick guys off no prob made me laugh.
This movie was terrible, and the scene when Johnny Depp was blind but still could pick guys off no prob made me laugh.
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5:30AM on 03/29/2012

Great Review...

...for an awesome movie! I feel that this was a decent review, although I think it lacked a distinct explanation of the trilogy. The first was intended to introduce us to El Mariachi, the second, to further flesh out the character and make him more iconic. This film simply put was the final chapter of his story, a minor but important part in a mini Mexican revolution. Sure, this series wasn't ever going to be as epic as The Man with No Name trilogy was... but it did have a lasting impact as I
...for an awesome movie! I feel that this was a decent review, although I think it lacked a distinct explanation of the trilogy. The first was intended to introduce us to El Mariachi, the second, to further flesh out the character and make him more iconic. This film simply put was the final chapter of his story, a minor but important part in a mini Mexican revolution. Sure, this series wasn't ever going to be as epic as The Man with No Name trilogy was... but it did have a lasting impact as I cite all of Rodriguez's work as inspiration to make movies. Depp really was a major addition and improvement on the series, and helped to elevate the series as a whole. In addition, I feel like everyone, yes, even Enrique Iglesias, was giving their A-game towards this movie. My only complaint is that Salma Hayek didn't get enough screen time. Aside from that, I had a blast with it. If you didn't maybe you should loosen up and start watching movies to have a good time instead of looking for their faults by default. Every Rodriguez film is supposed to be a popcorn film, not Citizen Kane for crying out loud.

On a side note, I also loved Planet Terror. Blast me if you will, but any film where Bruce Willis kills Bin Laden (off-screen of course), and lives long enough to tell the tale is cool with me. The movie was chock full of ridiculous characters who were fun while they lasted and each had their own moment to shine. El Wray's vagueness was intentional, and thus justified in its own way...phew, I had to get all that off my chest lol.
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10:10PM on 03/28/2012
While I don't like it as much as you did (it's certainly not Rodriguez's best) it is quite good. I am surprised to see so much hate toward it.
While I don't like it as much as you did (it's certainly not Rodriguez's best) it is quite good. I am surprised to see so much hate toward it.
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12:17PM on 03/28/2012
The Faculty is still his best film.
The Faculty is still his best film.
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9:59AM on 03/28/2012
The movie is just a big ensemble mess that jumbles too many characters and storylines with little satisfying payoff. And sadly gives the one well-established character, Mariachi, next to nothing to do except shoot blast a guy's kneecaps off towards the end. Its the 'New Year's Eve' of fanboy action films.

I also dislike the look of the movie, as Rodriguez shot it on digital cameras...and as a result a lot of the busier action shots look pixelated and blurry.

Robert Rodriguez has a
The movie is just a big ensemble mess that jumbles too many characters and storylines with little satisfying payoff. And sadly gives the one well-established character, Mariachi, next to nothing to do except shoot blast a guy's kneecaps off towards the end. Its the 'New Year's Eve' of fanboy action films.

I also dislike the look of the movie, as Rodriguez shot it on digital cameras...and as a result a lot of the busier action shots look pixelated and blurry.

Robert Rodriguez has a chronic case of 'Sequelitis.' Everything has to be a trilogy, and almost every sequel is beyond wretched. He's at his best working with original ideas (Planet Terror, Sin City, The Faculty.) As such I have very little faith in either Sin City 2 or Machete 2 being anything other than self-indulgent and terrible.

And finally...I'm not one to shy away from movie violence. But I have a tough time getting into a movie where the central protagonist shoots a waitress for no reason other than she spilled a drink. If he'd lost his balls instead of his eyes I guess that would have been appropriate cinematic justice.
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9:31AM on 03/28/2012

"Are you a Mexi-can, or a Mexi-can't?"

That line there sums up the cheesiness of this movie. It was just God-awful. El Mariachi was good, Desperado was good... Once Upon A Time In Mexico was a rotten egg. I saw it years ago and I still can not bring myself to revisit it.
That line there sums up the cheesiness of this movie. It was just God-awful. El Mariachi was good, Desperado was good... Once Upon A Time In Mexico was a rotten egg. I saw it years ago and I still can not bring myself to revisit it.
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8:57AM on 03/28/2012
I like this movie as a pretty ideal example of the economics of Rodriguez's filming style. It was one of the first movies I saw that really showed what someone could do with digital cameras. Agent Sands was the best part of the movie, if only because he's psychotic. Robert Rodriguez has never been a terribly good writer. His stories tend to rely heavily on the visual, which is fine. And If you know that going in, then it's infinitely more enjoyable. I think it rivals "Desperado," even if Danny
I like this movie as a pretty ideal example of the economics of Rodriguez's filming style. It was one of the first movies I saw that really showed what someone could do with digital cameras. Agent Sands was the best part of the movie, if only because he's psychotic. Robert Rodriguez has never been a terribly good writer. His stories tend to rely heavily on the visual, which is fine. And If you know that going in, then it's infinitely more enjoyable. I think it rivals "Desperado," even if Danny Trejo gets a less badass role. "El Mariachi" will in some ways always stand above the rest because of what he was able to do back then. Plus, it has the strongest story.
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8:25AM on 03/28/2012
I always enjoyed this film, but can also understand why people who'd only seen Desperado beforehand might not have appreciated the different take on the character of El. There's a degree to which Once Upon A Time In Mexico can be viewed as an analysis of the myth of El Mariachi/the folk hero. Certainly I feel it has more levels than a lot of people give it credit for. I'm not someone who obsesses over Robert Rodriguez' work, but Once Upon is not the most obvious follow-up to Desperado (or
I always enjoyed this film, but can also understand why people who'd only seen Desperado beforehand might not have appreciated the different take on the character of El. There's a degree to which Once Upon A Time In Mexico can be viewed as an analysis of the myth of El Mariachi/the folk hero. Certainly I feel it has more levels than a lot of people give it credit for. I'm not someone who obsesses over Robert Rodriguez' work, but Once Upon is not the most obvious follow-up to Desperado (or indeed El Mariachi) and is undoubtedly more interesting because of it.
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7:53AM on 03/28/2012

Meh

I like this film less and less with every viewing. Depp is still fun to watch in this though.
I like this film less and less with every viewing. Depp is still fun to watch in this though.
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6:00AM on 03/28/2012

finally

for once i actually agree with The Unpopular Opinion. loved Once Upon A Time In Mexico, even better than the previous two films. peace
for once i actually agree with The Unpopular Opinion. loved Once Upon A Time In Mexico, even better than the previous two films. peace
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+1
3:44AM on 03/28/2012
I was very dissapointed when I first saw this in theaters. Desperado is one of my favorites, and Once upon a time doesn't even come close. But the part that pissed me off the most, was Danny Trejo! He DIED in desperado! What was he doing there???
I was very dissapointed when I first saw this in theaters. Desperado is one of my favorites, and Once upon a time doesn't even come close. But the part that pissed me off the most, was Danny Trejo! He DIED in desperado! What was he doing there???
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3:29AM on 03/28/2012

Johnny Depp's last hurrah

I don't think this film is necessarily great, but it's significant because, for me at least, it represents Johnny Depp's last hurrah. He would not make a film like this again after "Pirates" exploded in 2004. This was the second sequel to a cult franchise, and yet he took a co-starring role in it. Can you imagine him doing that today? His presence alone would probably demand a far higher salary (and a greater box office intake). I'm not saying he's all about the money these days, because he
I don't think this film is necessarily great, but it's significant because, for me at least, it represents Johnny Depp's last hurrah. He would not make a film like this again after "Pirates" exploded in 2004. This was the second sequel to a cult franchise, and yet he took a co-starring role in it. Can you imagine him doing that today? His presence alone would probably demand a far higher salary (and a greater box office intake). I'm not saying he's all about the money these days, because he still does the occasional passion project like Rum Diary, but overall I think this is the film I typically think of as the barrier between "older" Johnny Depp and "modern" Johnny Depp...as fucking stupid as that sounds (and I do know it sounds kinda stupid).
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-4
2:21AM on 03/28/2012
Gotta disagree. For a movie "about Mexico" the only people in it worth watching are Johnny Depp and Willem DaFoe. I enjoyed the movie when I saw it, but really only for Depp's performance. The rest is Rodriguez's usual hack-a-thon.
Gotta disagree. For a movie "about Mexico" the only people in it worth watching are Johnny Depp and Willem DaFoe. I enjoyed the movie when I saw it, but really only for Depp's performance. The rest is Rodriguez's usual hack-a-thon.
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2:11AM on 03/28/2012
This is one of the better written unpopular opinions I have seen in a while. Keep it up, Joblo.
This is one of the better written unpopular opinions I have seen in a while. Keep it up, Joblo.
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2:02AM on 03/28/2012

the only thing...

that was awful about this movie was Iglesias, he felt so out of place that his presence almost spoiled the movie for me. But his mediocre acting felt somehow in tune with the subtle humour of the movie. Other than that it was gold, "are you a mexican or a mexicant?" hahahahaha. GOLD.
that was awful about this movie was Iglesias, he felt so out of place that his presence almost spoiled the movie for me. But his mediocre acting felt somehow in tune with the subtle humour of the movie. Other than that it was gold, "are you a mexican or a mexicant?" hahahahaha. GOLD.
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