Robert Rodriguez has his third crack at his own El Mariachi (1992) story. Billed as the final entry in a Spaghetti Western trilogy, Once Upon a Time in Mexico should be all about closure. The anomaly is that both the original and its remake/sequel, Desperado (1995), already essentially tied up their loose ends before the hero (initially played by Carlos Gallardo, then by rising star Antonio Banderas, who returns here a household name if not a box office draw) drove off into the sunset with their respective missions complete. The first mariachi’s story ended in an innocent’s race for survival, while the second mariachi’s ended as a vigilante’s weekend of reckoning. So with the exception of three entries making a neat DVD boxset, and Rodriguez’s initial ambition to feature his mariachi character in a trilogy of apprentice flicks, why do we need El Mariachi 3, Desperado 2 or Once Upon a Time 1?
And why is it so intent on introducing new characters like Johnny Depp’s too-cool-for-school CIA man Sands, Mickey Rourke’s laconic fallen angel and Willem Dafoe’s drug baron, who shuffles around the film like a queen in a card trick? Try and keep your eye on where he eventually ends up – or more importantly disappears in time to return, as I’m sure other survivors here are intended to, for some spin off/sequel/remake. This is a film that has no interest in being a concluding chapter, shows no concern with character arcs and could not give a spent bullet casing for establishing its plot. The scenes smash into each other with a certain car-crash logic, but in all honesty I doubt Rodriquez could explain his broken shard storylines and crash test dummy characters. He merely captures every exchange of bullets and words with his expert optical quick-draw. Like all his previous work, kinetics is the star – fireballs, fall guys, fast cars and all. His human characters, meanwhile, have the same familiar faces – Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Salma Hayek all return in similar roles to their original parts, despite the fact that two out of three died before the Desperado end credits.
All three films have been defined by their own world of Mariachi myth-making, and the third film continues the tradition. The chase of El Mariachi was instigated by a musician being confused for a legendary hitman. Both of the sequels begin with an embellishment of the mariachi legend – a deliberately over-the-top barroom blitz. The narrators knowingly exaggerate the stock Mariachi tale for their own ends. In Desperado Steve Buscemi’s yarn-spinner puts a cantina on edge, so that when Banderas turns up, he can hoodwink them into thinking he isn’t the real Mariachi, since no-one could live up to the legend. In Once Upon a Time, this mythologizing is discussed and taken to a new, romantic nationalist level.
The Mariachi has progressed not to some Batman style figure of perpetual vengeance, although tragedy is revisited upon him and scores are once again settled, but as a representation of Mexico’s dormant revolutionary spirit. Although the cell phones, trucks and artillery used in the film are modern, the period Rodriquez evokes is the politically turbulent Mexico of the early 20th century. Drugs are the new drive for the familiar coup, but the reaction from the people is the same as the peasants of The Magnificent Seven (1960) or Duck, You Sucker! (1971).
Rodriquez this time out repaints his hero as an embodiment of the collective Mexican resentment at being portrayed in the media as helpless pawns between the drug cartels and the various US government agencies. Banderas is bounced between Depp and Dafoe’s henchmen until he lashes out. He introduces himself (and his crew of guitar case toting troublemakers) to the ineffectual, self absorbed Presidente as the Sons of Mexico, and is seen in an incongruous cross-fade resplendent in a sash of the colours of the Mexican flag. All rousing patriotic stuf, but these asides would mean little if Rodriquez didn’t show the ordinary Mexicans (albeit ordinary Mexicans in skull masks) taking arms against the forces of oppression. Rodriquez’s film shows a leaderless band of citizens defending their country. He shows a people reacting against demonisation (by the US government) and economic strong-arming (by the drug cartels). His film may take place in some ironic straight-to video parallel reality, but at least it addresses the concerns of its represented people through a rollicking good yarn.
So the third reworking of the Mariachi myth has more artistic point behind it than, for example, Terminator 3 (2003). The fact that the chronology and continuity of the franchise has been chopped, changed and superseded means we should never read too much into the relation between each instalment. On the other hand, original Mariachi Carlos Gallardo returned in Desperado as one of Banderas’ guitar case carrying cohorts. Who’s to say that there aren’t many mariachis from similar backgrounds running around stopping and starting revolutions while carrying out their vengeance? One can already see a new legendary hero forming in Depp’s Sands, a cocksure Saul who has his day of atonement and blinding combined. His duel in the dust with black blood dripping from his empty eye sockets is one of most indelibly iconic images of the new millennium. Another franchise is born? Almost certainly, as Rodriguez has finally delivered on his early promise. Outstanding.