Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s Comics Week at The A.V. Club, and because we’ve already highlighted superhero movies and comic-book adaptations that aren’t about superheroes, we’re using the next five days to single out films whose imagery, storytelling, or themes are influenced by comics.
Once Upon A Time In Mexico (2003)
Like his good friend and collaborator Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez is known as a B-movie aficionado, stirring chunks of second-hand pulp into his own self-aware DIY myth-making. But his work also, consciously or not, incorporates elements of cartoons and comic books. This is visible not only in the actual comics adaptation Sin City (and, presumably, its forthcoming sequel) but also in the earlier Once Upon A Time In Mexico. Mexico concludes the trilogy that began with Rodriguez’s micro-budget debut El Mariachi and continued with Desperado. Antonio Banderas plays the Mariachi with no name for a second time, on a larger canvas and amidst an ensemble that includes Salma Hayek, Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, Ruben Blades, Danny Trejo, Eva Mendes, and an invaluable Johnny Depp.
Like so many comics heroes, the Mariachi has a backstory that shifts while retaining certain iconic elements: his guitar case of weaponry, his musicianship, and tragedy that fuels some form of vengeance. Once Upon A Time In Mexico comments explicitly on the inconsistencies from its first sequence, in which Cheech Marin—possibly playing a bartender killed in Desperado—recounts a scene of the Mariachi shooting up a bar with some kind of gun-guitar hybrid. He then acknowledges that the tale may have “picked up some embellishments” over the years and revises the story to ground it, however slightly.
Even if the Mariachi lacks an actual guitar-gun, Once Upon A Time In Mexico is as stylized as possible without losing its momentum (sorely needed for the most convoluted story of the series). During the action scenes, Rodriguez’s camera—he “shot, chopped, and scored” the movie himself, as the credits say—whooshes between frames that often resemble living splash panels. Gunshots send victims flying backward; the Mariachi survives all manner of acrobatic challenges. The sparks that senselessly fly during several shoot-outs even look like lines of movement and emphasis in a drawing.
The action must sometimes pause to accommodate a twisty plot that involves embroiling the Mariachi in a coup against the anti-cartel Mexican president. But for the quieter scenes, Rodriguez has Depp, hilariously underplaying his lunatic role as a crooked CIA operative who dons goofy disguises and murders without remorse. Even as the Mariachi saga wraps up, Depp’s character is granted a kind of origin story of his own—one predicated on his nasty comeuppance. Like an ongoing comics series, the movie leaves plenty of room for more.
No further sequels resulted, and maybe that’s just as well: Once Upon A Time In Mexico is the pinnacle of Rodriguez’s winking exploitation aesthetic. Whether by design or haste, the movies that followed this and Sin City looked cheaper and chintzier—less comics than Saturday morning cartoons. Mexico, by comparison, looks like a handsome, blood-spattered graphic novel.
Availability: Once Upon A Time In Mexico is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.