There is a legend in Mexico of a gunfighter known as El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas): they say he wiped out a whole town, that he has a shotgun guitar, and he is assisted by the love of his life, Carolina (Salma Hayek). Yet others will tell you he was left a broken man when the soldiers of General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil) ambushed him, and shot and killed his wife and daughter, leaving El Mariachi for dead. C.I.A. agent Sands (Johnny Depp) is trying to track this shadowy figure down, because he wants Marquez dead as well, only for slightly different reasons - reasons of power.
Written, shot, scored, edited and directed by that cinematic jack of all trades Robert Rodriguez, Once Upon a Time in Mexico was the third in his loosely connected series of Mariachi films, not so much a sequel as a continutation of that line of thought instigated by his debut. Banderas and a solely-in-flashback Hayek return from Desperado amongst a cast of cult actors, all looking suitably overheated in the blazing Mexican sunshine. As the title suggests, this instalment has the tone of a Spaghetti Western in modern dress, with Banderas doing most of the posing with firearms.
However, it's not the brooding Banderas who steals the picture, that honour goes to Depp, who lends his Machiavellian agent Sands a quirky personality all his own. Maybe because Sands is the one who not only looks as if he knows what is going on, but also takes the trouble to explain it for our benefit, that we warm to him as he dons various unconvincing disguises, uses a false, third arm or a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend "C.I.A." (not bothered about staying undercover, then?), and fires off dialogue like "Are you a Mexican or a Mexican't?".
That plot is labyrinthine to say the least, and it takes a lot of concentration to follow just who is out to get whom and why. Basically, Sands wants General Marquez dead, but only after the military have staged a coup d'etat; with the current president (Pedro Armendáriz Jr) out of the way, Sands' shady allies can take over, and the agent can walk away with the money that belongs to big shot gangster Barillo (Willem Dafoe). And that's not the half of it, as El Mariachi has to assemble a team to assassinate Marquez, Sands has a girlfriend (Eva Mendes) involved with the plan, and Barillo's chief henchman (Mickey Rourke) adds more intrigue to a film already overstuffed with twists and untrustworthy characters.
Life may be cheap here, and judging by the action here hardly anyone in Mexico dies of old age, but that's not to say death has no weight. Countless minions are gunned down or blown up, but that's part of the culture the film depicts, brought home by the main character's loss and a climax set against the Day of the Dead that sees a number of the cast meeting a violent end. What the overriding theme of Once Upon a Time in Mexico is, though, is "If it looks cool, put it onscreen"; bullets fly, bodies are propelled around, our haunted hero escapes certain annihilation, and it's all greatly stylish. Unfortunately, that can't take away from the anticlimactic denouement, where the threads of the story are simply cut short with gunplay. Good looking, sure, but it falls a little flat.