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Mexican Jumping Scenes

Engaging "Mariachi" series ends on a downer

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They say the third time's the charm, yet here's Robert Rodriguez doing everything in his power to destroy that time-tested maxim in the year 2003.

Rodriguez's Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over may have been a summer box office hit -- presumably because its target audience of under-12s had never enjoyed the dubious merits of three-dimensional cinema before -- yet for adults, it was a noisy, chaotic mess, and certainly a letdown after the first two films in the series. And now here's Once Upon a Time In Mexico, which may be a better movie than SK3D but is also a bigger disappointment.

Expectations were high for this third installment in the "Mariachi" series, which began with El Mariachi in 1992 and continued with Desperado in 1995. The first film told the tale of a wandering musician who was mistaken for a seasoned killer and forced to fight for his own survival. The second film, shot with a larger budget and a name actor in the lead role (Antonio Banderas, replacing Carlos Gallardo), found the Mariachi, now equally as adept with a gun as with a guitar, seeking revenge for the murder of his girlfriend. Mexico, one would think, would continue the story from its immediate predecessor, yet it's soon clear that Rodriguez paid only the barest hint of attention to his last "Mariachi" movie, rewriting characterizations that had already been established and even hiring some of the same actors from Desperado to now appear in different roles.

Clearly, this isn't the first sequel to monkey around with its lineage -- to this day, many Evil Dead fans still can't decide whether 1987's Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn is supposed to be a sequel or a remake of the 1983 original -- yet when a movie is as overplotted as this one, a little clarity in at least one corner would have been welcome.

In this outing, El Mariachi (El for short, and again played by Banderas) has been tapped by a duplicitous CIA agent named Sands (Johnny Depp) to help prevent fascistic General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil) and drug lord Barillo (Willem Dafoe) from assassinating the Mexican president (Pedro Armendariz). El is only too happy to get involved, as he's seeking vengeance against the general for reasons that are slowly leaked over the course of the film but which are pretty easy to guess right from the get-go. Yet there's treachery around every corner, and it quickly becomes apparent that almost no one can be trusted -- not the eyepatch-wearing informant (Cheech Marin), not the eager young government agent (Eva Mendes), not the President's advisor (Julio Oscar Mechoso), and certainly not the perpetually scheming Sands, who'll blow away an innocent man as quickly as a guilty one.

Still, even in this hotbed of corruption, a hero or two can be found. El's two sidekicks (Marco Leonardi and, in his film debut, singer Enrique Iglesias) will never desert their leader, while across town, a retired FBI agent (Ruben Blades) is doing everything within his power to bring down Barillo. And is Barillo's right-hand man, an American expatriate named Billy Chambers (a back-from-the-dead Mickey Rourke), sincere when he says he wants to go legit?

So many storylines, so little time to get involved with any of them. The biggest casualty, not surprisingly, is Banderas, who too often seems like an extra in his own movie. Based on the title, it's obvious that Rodriguez's intent was to make a south-of-the-border companion piece to Sergio Leone's epic Once Upon a Time In the West, which was so much an ensemble flick that all four stars (Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale and Jason Robards) found themselves with comparable screen space. But Leone's 1968 classic ran 165 minutes, allowing everyone time to stretch their personas; Mexico, on the other hand, clocks in at just shy of 100 minutes, which in this instance isn't enough time to create anything but a random series of Mexican jumping scenes.

Despite her second billing and va-va-voomish presence on the poster, Salma Hayek, returning as El's lady love Carolina, barely figures in the movie, appearing only in a smattering of flashback sequences (in which her character doesn't completely jibe with the Carolina of Desperado).

With both Hayek and Banderas basically relegated to also-ran status, it's up to Depp to carry the movie, and he does to the best of his ability. As lowkey here as he was bombastic in Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp moves through the picture with a sly smugness, as if he were the only one privy to some sort of private joke. Almost everything about his character amuses, from the nonchalant way he tells a little boy selling chewing gum to "fuck off" to the party-hearty wardrobe he wears, which is certainly not standard-issue CIA (one T-shirt reads, "I'm With Stupid," with the accompanying arrow pointing south toward his crotch).

Desperado was both bloody and cold-blooded, yet its engaging supporting players, the skillfully orchestrated action set pieces, and the sizzling chemistry between Banderas and Hayek allowed us to turn a blind eye to its less savory elements. This time, there are no smoke screens present, not with all the actors whirled around as if on a Lazy Susan and all the action sequences exhibiting a been-there-done-that vibe. All that's left now are the bullets and the bloodletting, uniting to provide a dour conclusion to a series that once upon a time offered something more than cheap, gratuitous violence.

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