Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Mexico
It is true that Robert Rodriguez is a master of action genre; yet his action movies are non-trivial and layered. So, it is quite interesting to have a close look at his film Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), which is a part of El Mariachi trilogy. This work of the director is a quintessence of his unique style, which is based on irony and grotesque. Although there is an element of politics present in the plot, it would be wrong to say that Rodriguez tries to tell a true-to-life story of relations between the United States and Mexico. Instead, he skillfully follows the rules of the genre by making the characters look clichéd on purpose and breaking these stereotypes at the same time. He demonstrates how political, cultural and moral values contribute to interaction between people and nations.
The plot of the film is based on a political situation in Mexico when drug trafficking master Armando Barillo is planning a coup d’état to kill the President and take unlimited power in the country. CIA wants to prevent this happen, and Agent Sands is on mission to kill General Marquez, his right hand, who is in charge of the assassination. However, because he is corrupt and merciless, he finds a way to fulfill the task in a different way by forcing El Mariachi to do this. The Mexican secret service has Ajedrez to help Sands; besides, he convinces the former FBI officer Ramirez to get involved. Sands manipulates the feelings of Ramirez and El Mariachi, because both of them want revenge for Marquez’s past deeds against them and their partners. He also persuades Billy Chambers, Barillo’s assistant, to participate in an exchange for the US protection. They attach a microphone to a dog in order to keep track on the drug tycoon’s actions. However, the plans do not work, because agent Ajedrez appears to be Barillo’s daughter who worked undercover in Mexican AFN. Sands finds out about Barillo’s plans to get plastic surgery done and discovers the corpse that presumably was his one as a result of failed operation. Yet, Sands is entrapped, as this has been a plan of Adjerez and Barillo. They make him blind by drilling his eyes out, yet as a real superman, he manages to survive and even to shoot several of his enemies successfully, including Adjerez. Although Marquez and his people attack President’s palace, El Mariachi, his friends and villagers manage to defeat them and defend the legitimate power in the country.
When speaking about the historical relevance of the film, it is worth saying that Rodriguez does not try to document the actual events or political relations but wants to play with all kinds of stereotypes. These stereotypes highlight characters and their interaction in a highly grotesque and ironic manner; yet, they remarkably reveal the truth about certain features of American and Mexican culture. Being a US citizen of Mexican origin, Rodriguez is perfectly aware about the controversies of the two cultures and clichés that are attributed to them. Thus, when shooting the film, he has to deal with two types of stereotypes: cinematic and real-life ones, though they intersect in many situations. Thus, for instance, the United States’ participation in political struggle in other countries is a projection of both real and artistic clichés. It would be true to say that Rodriguez is American enough to be ironic of Mexicans, and he is Mexican enough to be ironic of Americans. This happens because of his bicultural belonging, which enables him to distance himself from any of the two and make laugh at them.
While El Mariachi is an ironic representation of a Mexican male, Sands is an embodiment of American strengths and faults as seen by foreigners. In both cases, as researchers point out, the director deals with visions of perfect and twisted masculinity. The stereotypical male hero is described in the following way: “this form of identity is what “we refer to as “macho”: tough, competitive, self-reliant, controlling, aggressive and fiercely heterosexual” (Simon-López, p.46). This is actually a cliché image that is recurrent for Latino culture, yet Rodriguez does not want to take it seriously. Instead, he exaggerates the main features and actions of the character but makes them surreal and even ridiculous. Cinematic patterns help him do so, because he can support his idea with recognizable clichés of larger-than-life male hero: he is both romantic and harsh, both noble and merciless, can defeat ten enemies on his own, escape from any trap and survive; he is physically invulnerable, after all. His only vulnerability is his attachment to the other people, and this is where the borderline between masculine villains and masculine heroes lies.
Speaking about Sands as a representative of American culture, his character is quite ironically pictured in the context of secret service stereotypes. Rodriguez’s irony is also aimed at American omnipresence in the world, while they are often perceived as the ones who have little idea and respect for local cultures. Sands’ obsession with Mexican food is quite illustrative, representing the level of American interest in other nations. While being a political figure, Sands is also a highly cinematic character and is another representative of a stereotyped masculinity. As the researcher states, “after being tortured and deprived of his eyes his former rather average appearance changes into an extraordinary masculinity. Dressed in a black and body tight warrior suit with black sunglasses covering his empty eye sockets, he suddenly becomes a disabled but dark vision of masculinity” (Simon-López, p.54). This image makes him close to standard superhero films based on comic stories.
Thus, the film Once Upon a Time in Mexico is not a story that has a straightforward moral message. While ending with El Mariachi’s victory and triumph of patriotism versus crime, Rodriguez seems to say that common people led by a noble leader are able to overcome the evil. Another message of the film is the futility of American influence, which is symbolized by the blindness of CIA agent. Yet, it is not as simple as that, because the borderline between the light and the dark is very thin as stereotypical masculinity requires blood and cruelty. So, it is possible to say that the director does not try to be historically convincing about the events in Mexico. Instead, he emphasizes certain features of his character, which reveal the truth about political and cultural clichés that Americans and Mexicans have. At the same time, the filming approach of Rodriguez makes the work truly transcultural.