Once Upon a Time in Mexico (OUTM) is the third film in the conceptual trilogy of El Mariachi, Desperado, and OUTM. Its not a direct sequel, but you’ll recognize a lot of characters and imagery from the prior movies.
Plot: Without posting any spoilers, this is the story of CIA agent “Sands” (Depp) attempting to manipulate a military coup planned by a Mexican drug lord (Dafoe). El Mariachi (Banderas) gets caught up in the middle of after being hired by Sands, but as it turns out he’s…accepted the job to fulfill his own agenda. All told, an interesting and engaging story, and not so convoluted as to be hard to follow.
Special Effects: As you’ll learn if you dig through some of the DVD featurettes (try “10 Minute Flick School”), this movie was shot entirely digitally, and a great deal of the action (gunfire, explosions, etc.) was added in after the fact. It’s a tribute to the digital production crew that you would never know that any of the explosions, gunshot wounds, etc. etc. weren’t traditional special effects. All in all, an awesome job, made all the more impressive by the small size and budget of the team involved.
Casting and Acting: Casting for the movie was excellent, conducted by Mary Vernieu. It takes a special eye and a creative flair to cast Willem Dafoe as a ruthless Mexican drug lord, but that and the rest of the casting decisions definitely work. Check IMDB – Vernieu has been around for a while, working on various B-side and generally weird movies. Notable inclusions in here resume include Scooby-Doo (not so great) and Barbershop (much better) – so anyway, one to watch for.
Willem and Johnny are of course in fine form, as to be expected. Antonio looks (somewhat) like he’s tired of the whole “Desperado” bit. He does great work in the action scenes, but in the spaces in between he’s more listless and disillusioned looking than the character’s traumatized past calls for. I’m being nitpicky though. Banderas is the consummate pistolero, and no one else could have taken the role. The real star for me though was Danny Trejo – the “Mexi-can.” What a scary, malevolent, fantastic actor he is. Final note – don’t expect much Selma – she’s a bit part.
As you can tell from the cover of the DVD, this film features a lot of red, and a lot of black. Director Rodriguez does a great job of using Mexican scenery (urban and rural) to full effect, creating a visual feast. Color and saturation are excellent throughout the movie with dark scenes well mixed for visibility, and no cheesy visual trickery. Compare this to “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” to see the contrast: LXG has many scenes that are murky in the extreme and difficult to discern what is going on, liberally complemented by nasty edge enhancement lines as some sort of last-ditch attempt to increase viewability. At any rate, great video on this DVD.
A fantastic 5.1 audio mix – extremely lively and active with, I’m happy to report, a well mixed bass line. This is my biggest pet peeve with action movies – bass that drowns out whatever else is going on – see “Star Wars Episode II” for a reference on that one. Once Upon a Time in Mexico enjoys some excellent mixing, however, with bass being applied in rational amounts at appropriate times.
Dialog is also very listenable, without the horrible volume level issues experience in “The Order.” Everyone can always be heard and the volume levels for whispering and yelling are adjusted perfectly in relation to the surrounding noise levels. Sound engineers take note!
Note also that despite the slip cover packaging and full slate of extras, this is not a Collector’s Edition, or Special Edition. Something tells me that the future will see a SE re-release with a 6.1 / DTS track.
Final audio note: All of these compliments are made all of the more credible
The disc comes with a great variety of special features that nicely pad out the film. These are gratifyingly high-quality features that exhibit the same quirkiness that makes the film so enjoyable.
Ten Minute Flick School: This is a ten minute long (go figure) featurette on modern filming techniques – being able to produce a high-quality production on time and in-budget using digital film. Examples of the topics covered include a lot of digitization tricks – i.e.: how scenes can now be shot inexpensively in historical buildings by adding in damage after the fact, where as previous generations of filmmakers would have had to mess around with fake walls, heavy effects shots, and so on. All of this enabled, of course, by the replacement of celluloid by digital filming. Interesting material, makes you want to watch the movie again with an eye for some of the things pointed out.
Ten Minute Cooking School: This is the “quirky” part – a surprising watchable featurette, hosted by director Robert Rodriguez, on how to make the slow roasted pork featured as Agent Sands’ favorite meal in the movie. If I can find half of the spices he mentions, I’d like to try it myself.
Inside Troublemaker Studios: A slightly less interesting featurette on the production facilities used for this movie and Spy Kids 2 & 3. Interestingly, all of the facilities are housed in Rodriguez’s garage (which is palatial and nicely appointed), again emphasizing Rodriguez’s focus on high-quality / low-budget filmmaking using the latest technologies.
Robert Rodriguez Audio Commentary: Director Rodriguez likes to talk, a lot. Fortunately, he’s got lots of interesting things to say. Unlike some directors (the French director of Alien 4: Resurrection springs to mind), Rodriguez has a genuine passion for his film, and really gets into the commentary, voicing plenty of good insight. The only complaint I have is that Rodriguez get a bit hung up on certain points, talking about them for too long while other interesting things are happening in the film.
Sound Design Commentary: Now, this is a very cool feature. This commentary plays the movie with no dialog and no score – just the “sound design” – be it ambient, or gun fire, or whatever, and Rodriguez’s commentary. Sound is in 5.1 as well. As Rodriguez points out in his introduction, this lets a watcher hear a great deal that is ordinarily lost behind dialog/music/etc., and this commentary is an extremely educational piece to watch.
Trailers: Worth noting here – “El Mariachi,” “Desperado,” and two “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” (PG13 – green band, and R – red band) trailers are included, showing some good continuity (or lack thereof) with the other loosely related films.
Others: There’s more on the disc as well, including deleted scenes (not overly interesting, although some good character backstory was cut), more featurettes, and so forth.
Great film, great DVD. The movie is interesting and entertaining, and the DVD is carries Robert Rodriguez’s sense of style and humour perfectly. All told, a highly recommended purchase.
Special Features List
- Commentary by director Robert Rodriguez
- Music and sound design track with commentary
- Ten Minute Flick School (Featurette)
- Ten Minute Cooking School (Featurette)
- Eight deleted scenes with optional director
- Inside Troublemaker Studios (Documentary)
- The Anti-Hero
- Film Is Dead: An Evening with Robert Rodriguez
- DVD-ROM: Test your wits in the shooting gallery
- The Good, the Bad, and the Bloody: Inside KNB FX
- Trailers (Desperado, El Mariachi, OUTM)