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Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

I saw director Robert Rodriguez’s “El Mariachi” series backwards, starting with this threequel then going back to see Desperado and El Mariachi and in-between I read Rodriguez’s excellent filmmaking book Rebel Without a Crew.  While Rodriguez himself has been EXTREMELY hit or miss (how many Spy Kids movies are there?), Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a fantastic film.  I’ve seen this a handful of times and I’m always swept up in the action, the Old West feel, the beautiful music, and in this film especially, an incredibly witty script.

After the murder of his wife and daughter, retired hitman El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) is asked by the shady CIA agent Sands (Johnny Depp) to take out the military man responsible for their deaths.  Amidst all the political intrigue of an impending military coup in Mexico, a drug kingpin (Willem Dafoe) is set to be taken down.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico really focuses on the problems of the country itself despite the Western element of the lone gunslinger going out for revenge making it equal parts political commentary and bloody revenge thriller.  The same pieces of the previous Mariachi films return, notably Banderas playing the character who hilarious is introduced by assassin Cucuy (Danny Trejo) as “His name’s El.  It means ‘The’.”  That’s the biggest selling point of this movie.  Outside of the gun battles, and the double crossings, there’s a lot of humor in the script penned by Rodriguez himself.  The best lines come courtesy of Depp’s character Sands.  First, this is probably one of the last good Depp performances where he played someone out of costume (the other being Public Enemies) and he’s a character who tries so hard to “blend in” that he sticks out like a sore thumb in horribly touristy message t-shirts and mustaches that are so obviously fake.

The constant political struggle, multiple double-crossings, and gunplay makes the movie whiz past its 102 minute runtime and I’m doing it a terrible injustice because so many of its elements need to be seen.  Suffice it to say Once Upon a Time in Mexico is probably one of Rodriguez’s best films.

Grade: A

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

4 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) Leave a comment

  1. I enjoyed Once Upon a Tine In Mexico for what it was the one time I saw this in the theater. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it again, perhaps it didn’t stand up over time, and my tastes have matured a little bit since then. I see what your saying about Depp, it would be nice if he embraced the concept of less is more and balanced his choices some. Have you seen how he dresses for appearances?
    Very pleasant read today,


    • I will admit Once Upon a Time in Mexico isn’t perfect, but for a threequel that came so far out from the sequel it’s a good film, and far better than Rodriguez’s spotty outlook now. Depp falls into the same category as Mike Meyers in that I love them when they play “normal” guys. Sure the funny costumes are great, but sometimes you want to see them actually act and not rely on costumes or makeup to convey a performance. Thanks for reading!


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