Desperado (1995) and Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
I find it refreshing when a filmmaker feels emboldened enough to express their creative vision. Robert Rodriguez is an alternative director. His movies scream with uniqueness (although ironically, his sensibilities are often in lockstep with his contemporary Tarantino). They both have exceptional gifts for constructing tremendous characters, while never losing focus on providing the audience with a lot of fun.
1992 brought forth Reservoir Dogs and El Mariachi — blueprints for the kinds of movies the two directors would go on to make over their careers. Exempting the iconic Pulp Fiction, their filmographies over the 11-year period from 1992 to 2003 are pretty even. So I decided to provide a ranking of the movies they directed over that period. And in true Rodriguez style, I ranked, scored, and summed them myself. Unfortunately, I have seen 7 movies by Rodriguez versus the 5 Tarantino made, so naturally Rodriguez has a competitive advantage. Oh well. Here are the results (excluding the Rodriguez movies I have yet to see).
- Pulp Fiction — 12 points
- From Dusk till Dawn — 11 points
- Kill Bill: Volume 1–10 points
- The Faculty — 9 points
- Spy Kids — 8 points
- Reservoir Dogs — 7 points
- Once Upon a Time in Mexico — 6 points
- Kill Bill: Volume 2–5 points
- Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams — 4 points
- Jackie Brown — 3 points
- El Mariachi — 2 points
- Desperado — 1 point
Like I said, pretty close.
A Robert Rodriguez movie is typically defined by its ability to weaponize thrills…often at the cost of story development, as with Desperado (1995). The movie is buoyed by inventive action set pieces, but not enough story to stitch it all together. The characters (especially Steve Buscemi’s and Danny Trejo’s) are fantastically created. Trejo has no dialogue, but his physical presence haunts the movie and is absolutely scene-stealing nonetheless.
The set ups and settings are also fantastically created. However, there’s a severe lack of payoff that ultimately left me wanting more. The movie feels aimless through the first 28 minutes. A lot of stylish action pops up throughout the movie, but the beats between the set pieces are very lean in a not-so-complimentary way (in contrast, consider Leone’s vista shots that seemingly soak up the emptiness).
The movie is definitely in conversation with movie history. The guitar case motif is essentially a stand-in for something like Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase. Except, Rodriguez amps up the gimmick. The vibe of the whole movie is lifted right from High Plains Drifter. The Antonio Banderas revenge-seeking character feels almost like a ghost in his own movie.
Overall, the best pieces of the movie stem from its many little monologues, particularly the opening prologue and “the pissing joke” sequences. These are the takeaways that allow Desperado to distinguish itself from other generic action revenge thrillers (such as Quantum of Solace, Collateral Damage)…I’m just not sure if it’s enough to make me come back.
Best Scene: The Prologue
Steve Buscemi’s fictionalized account of his encounter with the mysterious guitar player is far and away the highlight of the movie. Buscemi channels energy somewhere on the spectrum between his own character in Fargo and Eli Wallach. (The movie actually loses a lot of sizzle with the departure of Buscemi’s character).
Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Whereas Bad Boys II eschews commentary about American colonialism and the War on Terror, Once Upon a Time in Mexico clings to it so tightly, that it almost drowns. The movie feels very weighted down by its need to voice something about the George W. Bush administration. At one point, Johnny Depp’s CIA character wears literal CIA apparel.
I criticized Desperado for its emptiness, but now I criticize Once Upon a Time in Mexico for its bloat. There are a lot of well-inspired characters with hazy motivations that culminates in a messy shootout. Again, Rodriguez has centered the story around the guitar player’s mission for revenge…sorta. Antonio Banderas almost feels relegated to being the 6th man on his own team. His scenes are tiresome in a way that makes me feel longingly for Frodo and Sam. I have no clue why I am supposed to root for him. There are some flashbacks featuring Salma Hayek, but the whole endeavor is a wasted opportunity. Banderas has nothing to do. Hayek has nothing to do.
But luckily, there’s Johnny Depp. Johnny Depp absolutely rules in Once Upon a Time in Mexico much like Tom Cruise does in Magnolia. He’s sticking to his acting strengths and playing a fun, eccentric character in the best possible way. What was Johnny Depp’s character trying to accomplish exactly? I’m not sure, and I don’t think it ultimately matters.
The political revolution/assassination plot is evidence of Rodriguez’s filmmaking growth. He uses the storyline as a guide to keep the movie’s momentum focused. This is what was truly lacking in Desperado, and probably the reason why I would revisit Once Upon a Time in Mexico. He’s matured as a director, and I feel rewarded by that. Whenever the movie starts to detour too much, Rodriguez reigns everything back in by homing in on the Depp character again. This might be the last good movie of his career so far, so it’s awesome that he was able to make this movie on his own creative terms.
Lastly, this Wes Anderson-esque shot puts such a smile on my face.