Whew! After worrying that my heart might not survive a movie with both Antonio Banderas and Johnny Depp as its stars, I feel a great sense of relief now. Still, I admit facing some touch-and-go moments while watching Once Upon a Time in Mexico -- most of them involving Banderas. Reprising his black- and-silver garbed El Mariachi role from Desperado, Banderas took my breath away again. Sleek and swift as a panther, he projects the charisma and magnetism of an old-time movie star. And he needs very little dialogue to do so. His expressive face and fluid body language say practically everything that needs to be said about the person he portrays, a man haunted and scarred by tragedy.
"The character of El Mariachi comes to life through action and movement rather than through dialogue," explains Banderas. "He is basically a classic hero in that sense. He speaks very little and he moves like a bullfighter or a flamenco dancer. When he shoots a gun it's like he's playing a guitar. They are the same thing to him. There's the same music behind it. The movie almost plays like rock 'n roll. The violence is all choreographed."
About that violence. "It was mostly gratuitous -- the best kind," my husband quipped as we left the theater. But it seemed like cartoon violence to me, the kind made fun of in those "Itchy and Scratchy" segments of TV's The Simpsons. Bloody eye-gouging, loud explosions, lots of fiery gunplay, and so forth.
Speaking of violence, be patient, all you Depp fans. I'll get to him in a minute -- but not before commenting on the film's terrific music. According to filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids, From Dusk to Dawn), he began writing the music for Once Upon a Time in Mexico at the same time he was working on the script. "I wanted a Latin orchestral sound to represent Mexico, as well as the journey of the different characters, infusing it with Spanish guitar and rhythms," he said. Rodriguez asked several of the actors to come up with musical ideas to represent the characters they were playing. Both Banderas and Depp contributed musical numbers used in the film. One of the most lingering melodies is the song Salma Hayek (who appears briefly in flashbacks as Mariachi's gorgeous wife) sings during the closing credits. It's a beautiful, haunting ballad by Rodriguez. I'm impressed with everything about this film's music, and I appreciated the way it put me in the right mood for the story without detracting from any action or emoting taking place on screen.
Which brings us to the amazing Mr. Depp. Emote he does. Playing a greedy, corrupt and downright evil CIA agent, he almost steals the movie from Banderas. Too bad he doesn't have a sexy outfit or at least one guitar. Depp's weapons? Just clever one-liners, a few silly T-shirts, and an extra arm. Not much to count on when you're out to recruit the mythic El Mariachi in your plan to sabotage an assassination plot against the President of Mexico by General Marquez, the villain who caused our hero's past tragedy. Depp's character needs all the help he can get to earn a big payoff from piano-playing cartel kingpin Barrillo, another very bad man, played with eerie brilliance by Willem Dafoe.
Although a few scenes in Once Upon a Time in Mexico seem to come from left field (especially a confusing plastic surgery sequence), this wild action flick represents another example of exciting filmmaking from the multitalented Robert Rodriguez. Will this third El Mariachi movie be the last in the series? I, for one, hope not.
(Released by Dimension Films and rated "R" for strong violence and language.)