There is nothing temperate about this movie. Just like the backdrop of the plot, the entire 102 minutes of the film is rich with excesses characteristic of tropics. From vibrant colour schemes in the scenery (no pastels anywhere) to volleys of gun shots fired, to bodies dropping dead in combat, everything is in plenty. As is the promise of entertainment that this movie carries with it. Yes, I admit, in spite of being an ardent admirer of cerebral celluloid, “Once Upon A Time In Mexico” remains my ‘secret guilty pleasure’, in which I indulge almost hypnotically every time “El Mariachi” plays on screen; or shoots guns, in this case.
What’s so fascinating about this movie? For me, it’s not the plot. So to say, this movie does not have a gripping plot. The story is secondary here; at least it has been made secondary by the screenplay. Drug cartels, CIA operations to bust the cartels and a coup to kill the Mexican President form the main threads with which the story is woven. The movie is not about these threads though. It is about the man who weaves the threads together into this almost epic saga that has drawn comparisons with another epic saga of yesteryears, Sergio Leone’s “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”. This is the story of one man, a street musician, known as ‘El Mariachi’.
I will not retell the story here. Robert Rodriguez has done a brilliant job (not that he needs my appreciation; he is way too great for that) telling the story, and those rare few who are reading this piece but are yet to watch the movie, would do better to buy or download or simply tune in to their televisions when some English movie channel is airing the film, and watch it. This movie is built around its moments and believe me, this movie has excesses of such moments; too many to be recounted in accurate chronological order.
And what moments those are!!!! Right from the very beginning till the end, moments mob you. It is perhaps a common feature of all action movies. It is a rare feature of most dramas. But in all cases, you do get a chance to say ‘uno momento’ before the next big moment in the movie hits you. This movie does not allow you that. I will elucidate it with an allegory from the language of food. Suppose you are out for a five course dinner at a classical European restaurant. Upon sitting at your table, you place your order and are served with the wine of your choice. You cleanse your palette with the wine while you wait for your first course, the Hors d’oeuvre (appetizer, for us non connoisseurs). When served, you are expected to take tiny helpings of the tiny proportions of the served food at a time, instead of gulping down the whole thing. You put the food into your mouth, roll it about with your tongue, savour the taste from all angles (desperately trying to prevent the tiny morsels from entering your gullet) and then swallow. Your face is expected to glow with a sublime halo when the food (which by now is simply a bolus in biological terms) hits your stomach. You repeat these steps with every bite you take of every course in your order, from the entrée till desserts, cleansing your palette with wine in between, championing the art of gastronomy all along (perhaps to the point where you feel exhausted from having given such a performance for the sake of eating food). Each morsel that you take during this classical dinner is like a moment in most drama movies. They come slowly, have to be savoured with patience, appreciated for their sublime quality and relished at ease. In contrast, the moments in ‘Once Upon A Time In Mexico’ is like having ‘Fuchkas/Golgappas’. Just like busy vendors serving you these famous Indian street foods with lightning speed, the endless moments of this movie hit you non-stop till the credits begin to appear at the end. And just as, when you look at your empty plate after having gobbled the fuchkas, you realize that the eating session is over, with the creeping credits in this movie you realize that the 102 minutes for which you had geared up are well nigh past. And as is with eating fuchkas, you perhaps will feel that you are still hungry for more.
So what is my favourite moment in this movie? I want to say what Agent Sands (played by Johnny Depp; and a stellar performance at that) has said towards the end of the movie, “Okay, Okay. I’m going to freak right out.” I cannot name one. I want to name a million. However, since I am not a MEXI-CAN, I don’t think I am permitted to do so (you have to watch the movie to understand this MEXI-CAN thing). I however have some which are a little bit dearer to me than the rest. The scene where El Mariachi (played by Antonio Banderas, another great actor that Hollywood justly boasts of) declares that his wife and daughter having died he is dead, while their killer is alive and well, just before shooting the man and finishing his sentence with “…in hell” is superb. I found the Cross hanging in the operating room where Barillo is being given a facial reconstruction ironic, in that, man was shown to play God right in front of His icon. I enjoyed Sands’s quirky gratitude to a dead body from whose eye socket he is removing something valuable. The chewing gum boy’s assurance to blind Sands that he will be alright is amusingly ironic and sweet. Besides, Sands’s weird prosthetic third arm, Chamber’s apologetic excuse to his pet Chihuahua, the bank notes overflowing from Fideo’s pants and Lorenzo’s guitar case, wooden guitars in the making hanging from carts in El Mariachi’s village, all form part of my favourite movie moment collection. Add to that the rich imagery of the film, splendid soundtrack with guitar solos and the essence of patriotism, and you end up with a “guilty pleasure” which you secretly cherish, although it preaches no moral or teaches no wisdom.
I love watching this movie. I don’t know the exact number of times that I have watched it. Even if I miss the start when being telecast on TV, I never switch off or do my task at hand until I have watched the last. It’s an addiction with me. I have found this movie to be a great mood lifter. Although, traditionally, dramas are meant to be comforters of tormented psyche, this action movie lifts my spirits. Perhaps, the amalgamation of reality with absurdity (the screenplay is often too make-believe, especially regarding the ready availability of munitions in the action sequences) makes this movie a favourite. It gives the movie a fairy-tale like quality, but with real life people in real life situations in a third world country. And aren’t we all in search of our own personal fairy-tales?