Rodriguez mostly bores me. Oh sure, his El Mariachi was interesting, but did he have to go and remake his own picture and call it Desperado? Now we’ve got Once Upon A Time In Mexico, which probably should be called El Mariachi III, assuming you’ll consider for a moment calling the second installment El Mariachi II. Truth be told, Rodriguez considers his newest Desperado II. Are you still with me? And frankly, his From Dusk Till Dawn, a violent con men/quasi-western/contemporary vampire film also fits into the mix, or mold if you will. I think the latter has a terrific style and a looseness that works, but it walks the same road as the El Mariachi pictures. As a matter of record, Rodriguez is the same guy who made three versions of Spy Kids.

All in all, it really doesn’t matter, Once Upon A Time In Mexico proves that Rodriguez has run out of gas. The director has already over-worshipped at the altars of Peckinpah and Leone. I mean, come on, when does homage turn into plagiarism? And now he’s virtually looting his own imitations for a bloody display of surreal stuck-in-a-rut filmmaking. At least Rodriguez’s mentor, Quentin Tarantino had the good sense to stop making movies for a while because the ideas weren’t there. In Once Upon A Time In Mexico, we’re visited by the brooding man with no name who once had revenge in his heart. Antonio Banderas saunters through town knowing he’s got all manner of firepower in his guitar case. Salma Hayek, who thankfully doesn’t talk much in what amounts to a pointless cameo, plays the fetching female seemingly only because this kind of movie needs a fetching female. If my memory serves me correctly, the plot point involving her in this movie doesn’t seem to gibe with her plot point in Desperado. Let’s just say she was once Banderas’ love interest, and leave it at that.

Here’s the gist of the story: CIA agent Johnny Depp would like the president of Mexico dead. But, he doesn’t want him dead at the hands of an assassin. So he signs on the mysterious singing gunman (Banderas as El Mariachi) to kill the killer. There’s a drug lord played by Willem Dafoe who seems to be channeling Orson Welles’ idea of Mexican badness from his Touch of Evil. The overthrow of the Mexican government is at the center of the movie, but hyperventilating around the edges of this overwrought feature are all manner of characters (like a fascistic general), some friendly, some less so, who participate in the goings-on, and there are all manner of goings-on. The movie is like a maze without an exit. You want Cheech Marin? You got ‘im. You want Ruben Blades? You got him, too. You want Mickey Rourke? Oh yes, he’s here as well.

Rodriguez is a multitasking director. He does everything. And he does it in the comfort of his house outside Austin, Texas. No Hollywood excess for him, which proves that you don’t have to live in Los Angeles to make convoluted, violent, cinematic junk food. In addition to writing and directing this rehashed mishmash, he photographed the movie himself using high-definition video. He also produced it, wrote the familiar music (all hail Ennio Morriconi), and edited the picture, or, as it reads in the opening credits, “chopped” it. Fortunately, the film doesn’t look like a home movie, which is its saving grace. If you like your action gonzo, then this feature could be right up your alley. The blood flows and flows and flows. There are some truly indulgent action scenes, and I will attest that there is a visceral excitement to them. For a while. How many times can Rodriguez shatter images? As many times as he wants to, I guess. How many times can he lead the audience down one path and then disappear into one of the myriad subplots? Too often for me. I don’t mind incoherence if it’s coherent. Comic book fantasies are great in comic books. Rodriguez is all over the place because he’s bereft of ideas. My sense of El Mariachi and Desperado were that romance played an important role in their story lines. Revenge was sweet. All we’ve got now is slaughter for the sake of stylized slaughter.

The whole enterprise collapses into a jumble of conspiracy and danger with no way out except the front door of the movie theater. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

It seems that director-screenwriter Robert Rodriguez is going to keep making the same movie until he gets it just the way he wants it, or at least until no studio gives him money to rekindle the work of classical stylists like Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone.