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Should I Watch..? 'Once Upon a Time in Mexico' (2003)

Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!

Poster for the film

Poster for the film

What's the Big Deal?

Once Upon A Time In Mexico is an epic action western film released in 2003 and is the final film in Robert Rodriguez's Mexico trilogy. It features Antonio Banderas playing the character of El Mariachi for the second time after his initial appearance in the second film Desperado. The film sees El Mariachi recruited by a shady CIA agent to assassinate a drugs lord planning a coup d'état while El Mariachi is on a personal quest for revenge. It is notable for being the first big-budget film shot in digital HD. Despite the film being a financial success at the box office and the most successful entry in the Mexico trilogy, critics were less impressed with the film's overly complicated plot and large number of characters reducing Banderas' role in the film.


What's It About?

El Mariachi is recruited by CIA agent Sheldon Sands to kill General Emiliano Marquez, a corrupt official employed by drugs lord Armando Barillo to assassinate the Mexican President and overthrown the government. El Mariachi accepts as General Marquez was the man responsible for killing his wife Carolina and his daughter. In addition to that, Sands also persuades retired FBI agent Jorge Ramirez to come out of retirement in order to kill Barillo.

As the Mexican Day Of The Dead approaches, the town quickly fills with a number of dangerous individuals from AFN operative Ajedrez to two more of El Mariachi's cousins who also carry suspicious guitar-cases. But with so many people clashing with so many agendas, will El Mariachi survive long enough to complete his quest and will Sands manage to escape Mexico at all?


What's to Like?

As a massive fan of Desperado, I was eager to see what Robert Rodriguez could do with a proper budget and it turns out the answer is more of the same.

This bloated follow-up contains the same cartoony ultra-violence, scarcely believable characters and spaghetti western influences worn like a badge of honour. Banderas and Hayek are a natural couple on screen together and both have tremendous fun reprising their characters. Even the likes of Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo are shoe-horned into this film despite meeting their maker in the earlier film. Include other talented Latino actors like Mendes and Blades and this is arguably the ultimate Mexican shooter.

But make no mistake, the true star of this movie is Depp in a bewildering performance as the utterly mental Sands. Utilising a vast array of crumby disguises and an itchy trigger finger, he is the film's puppet-master until the script throws up a twist or two. Rodriguez displays a natural affinity for his surroundings, knowing where and how to shoot to get the most out of the scenes. The decision to shoot in HD digital is a double-edged sword (some of the prop guns look quite rubbery) but with so much carnage going on, the film delivers a punch as few others can. Not since The Matrix does the style suit the material.

Why doesn't every film come with Enrique Iglesias with a guitar-case flamethrower?

Why doesn't every film come with Enrique Iglesias with a guitar-case flamethrower?

Fun Facts

  • Impressed by preliminary footage of Star Wars: Episode II - Attack Of The Clones, Rodriguez decided to shoot purely on digital HD but didn't have enough time to film Spy Kids 2 as he had planned. As a result, he wrote the script in six days while saving time on the digital shoot.
  • Depp shot all of his scenes in eight days but decided to stick around the set. Asking Rodriguez for another cameo, the director cast him as the priest in the church while Depp played the role with his impression of Marlon Brando.
  • According to Rodriguez, the title for the film was suggested by his good friend Quentin Tarantino. It deliberately harks back to the films of Sergio Leone who was an influence on the whole Mexico trilogy.
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What's Not to Like?

Clearly, the Mexicans haven't heard of the phrase "too many cooks spoil the broth". With so many characters suddenly introduced to the mix, the film quickly becomes confused as to what it's supposed to be. The sub-plot involving Ramirez still felt far-fetched but far too serious for what should be the goofiest western in existence. It has pop singer Enrique Iglesias with a guitar-case flame-thrower, for heaven's sake! The confusion in the screenplay isn't helped by the fact that some cast members from the earlier film reappear, albeit as different characters. But even I would struggle to tell the difference between Trejo in this film and Trejo in the other one.

The other big problem is Depp who steals the show from Banderas as easily as he does playing Jack Sparrow in the Pirates Of The Caribbean series. While the character of Sands is certainly an intriguing one, he isn't entertaining enough and frankly, never feels based in reality - even one as loopy as that of El Mariachi. Actually, that doesn't go far enough—he'd still feel out-of-place in a Looney Tune cartoon opposite Bugs and Daffy. His presence hovers over the whole picture like a vast shadow in the Mexican sunshine and for me, it spoilt the film. Yes, it has all the action you'd expect for a follow-up to one of the bloodiest and trigger-happy films of the '90s. But beneath the carnage, there isn't much more the film has to offer and I confess to finding myself disappointed.

Depp's deranged performance helps the film to feel completely unhinged...

Depp's deranged performance helps the film to feel completely unhinged...

Should I Watch It?

Action fans will arguably get the most out of Once Upon A Time In Mexico, especially those of a Latino heritage. The film manages to inject as much fun as it can into the mythos of El Mariachi but the confusing plot and shameless scene-stealing by Depp make this feel like a poor relation of Rodriguez's earlier output. The Mexico trilogy, started off by ultra-low budget El Mariachi back in 1992, got slowly more Hollywood with each instalment, and am I the only one to find that a bit of a shame?

Great For: action junkies, Latino audiences, anyone who watches action movies for the plot

Not So Great For: short attention spans, supporters of indie cinema, Banderas' chances of escaping his most famous role to date

What Else Should I Watch?

It goes without saying that Desperado was much more enjoyable than Once Upon A Time In Mexico, as it keep things simple and the film flowing nicely from one gratuitous shoot-out to the next. But what of the rarely-spotted original El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez's debut film made for just $7000 and filmed in his native Spanish? Granted, the film's story isn't that original (it's certainly familiar to anyone who had already seen its follow-up) but like the others, it has an energy and intensity that is hard to escape from. It's well worth tracking down although you might need the subtitles switched on.

Rodriguez would later return to similar territory with his old buddy Danny Trejo in Machete and Machete Kills, in which the mustachioed muscle man plays the sort of bad-ass you'd fully expect him to. Although the character originally appeared in the Spy Kids franchise he created, Rodriguez was inspired to make the movie by John Woo films like Hard Boiled. Like this film, the picture is a wonderfully over-the-top love letter to cinematic violence but utilising Woo's trademark slow-motion sequences and lots and lots and lots of bullets.

Main Cast


Antonio Banderas

El Mariachi

Salma Hayek


Johnny Depp

Sheldon Jeffrey Sands

Mickey Rourke

Billy Chambers

Willem Dafoe

Armando Barillo

Rubén Blades

Jorge Ramírez

Eva Mendes

Ajedrez Barillo

Enrique Iglesias


Danny Trejo


Cheech Marin


Technical Info

DirectorRobert Rodriguez


Robert Rodriguez

Running Time

102 minutes

Release Date (UK)

26th September, 2003




Action, Crime, Thriller

© 2016 Benjamin Cox

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