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Over the past twelve years Mexican director Robert Rodriguez has developed a cult-following for himself. In 1992 he released a movie called el Mariachi which put a travelling Mexican Mariachi on the run for his life. It was successful enough to warrant the sequel in 1995's Desparado. Considered a financial success, the film made stars of Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek. Rodriguez would become friends with another up and coming cult director Quentin Tarantino, and the two would collaborate together on movies such as Four Rooms and From Dusk Till Dawn. Over the next several years Rodriguez would go on to create another franchise, in the wildly successful Spy Kids series.

While Rodriguez would continue to collaborate with fellow entertainers Bandaras, Hayek, and Tarantino over the better part of the past decade, the four of them have established themselves as stars. In September of 2003 the final chapter of the el Mariachi series was released as Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Now teamed with the red hot Johnny Depp the film, marked as a moderately financial success, received great DVD treatment in January of this year. Now, Columbia Tri-Star has issued a Superbit disc to capitalize on the HD film transfer from Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico: Superbit
The film opens with eccentric CIA Agent Sands (Johnny Depp, known most recently for his role in Pirates of the Caribbean) paying for information on El Mariachi. Belini (played by veteran Cheech Marin) essentially catches the audience up by giving us a brief origin story of previous events. We learn that Sands is seeking to hire El Mariachi (reprising the role is Antontio Banderas) to kill the cartel drug lord Barillo (Willem Dafoe) who is attempting to assassinate the Mexican President (Pedro Armendariz). It takes some creative convincing, but Sands eventually is able to gain the help of El Mariachi.

Still troubled by nightmares of the death of his wife (Salma Hayek) and his daughter, both who are only shown in visions, El Mariachi enlists a team (including Enrigue Iglesias) to take out Barillo. In addition, El Mariachi has a vendetta against General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil), the man who gunned down his family and has subsequently joined with Barillo. The film is a complete mess, as I was confused for the vast majority of its duration. Deception, confusion, and greed are the plot elements that surround most of the film, which just adds to the chaos of the film. Capped off by some fun and innovative action sequences, the movie is very hollow and left me scratching my head.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico: Superbit
Once Upon a Time in Mexico reeks of Quentin Tarantino’s influence. The action sequences are over the top and exaggerated much like the Kill Bill films, and some of the dialogue (particularly Depp’s) is very reminiscent of Pulp Fiction. This is a blatant choice that director Rodriguez makes, and unfortunately the movie suffers from it. The plot was extremely hard to follow, due to the fact that the main character (El Mariachi) didn’t have an important role, keeping the audiences attention focused on the wrong people. Rodriguez may have struck gold in his other cinematic ventures, but he hits a dud here. From a business standpoint, the movie barely featured two of the stars that it touted on its poster, Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek, and that is very much a problem.

The only saving grace to this film is the spectacular performance given by Johnny Depp. Almost as an ode to other comedic movie law enforcers Leslie Neilson and Peter Sellers, Depp provides great life and comedy to a very dry movie. Giving a man a cash payoff in a lunch box (as opposed to the traditional briefcase) was brilliant. His scenes as a blind person are among my favourite of the year as he is led around by a young boy whom he bribes and even encourages to use a gun. His demeanour in his disguises are classic, and he milks every scene that he is in. If not for Johnny Depp, Once Upon a Time in Mexico would have been a really forgettable movie. Instead we get one of the best performances of 2003. If the movie was half as good as Depp was we would have all been in for a real treat. It is only Depp's performance that keeps my score for the film as high as it is.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico: Superbit
Shot initially at a 2:35:1 ratio and then matted at a 1:78:1 aspect ratio, the video quality on this Superbit is drop-dead gorgeous. Having been filmed digitally on a Sony Panavision HD lens, Once Upon a Time in Mexico has a video transfer which all other Superbits should strive for. I saw no signs of haloing from edge enhancement, and there was certainly no presence of film grain. Every colour jumps off the screen at you; if you have an HDTV I promise you will be in heaven. Colours are sterling throughout the duration of the movie and balance well with each other, especially when the cinematography features a lot of earth-toned colours. Shadows and dust clouds never pixelate, nor is there any detection of noise.

The only complaint that I could possibly fathom anyone having with the transfer is that the colours feel saturated. While this is a valid point, I think it is only due to the film being shot digitally and does not detract from the movie itself or the quality of the transfer. While I do think that HD photography still is a work in progress, this transfer is still as good as anything else out there. Attack of the Clones was also a digital transfer, along with Finding Nemo and A Bug's Life, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico is just another step in the realization of this type of video presentation. This is unquestionably a reference material disc for video quality, in my eyes.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico: Superbit
The Once Upon a Time in Mexico Superbit offers two different audio tracks: Dolby Digital and DTS. I am sad to say that neither one struck me as anything special. There doesn’t appear to be any extra effort put in to the sound mix that would create a more entertaining audio experience. The channels are used sparingly, but enough to submerse you in the environment the director has created. There were plenty of opportunities to be more creative with the sound elements, such as the shootout in the church and the scenes in the bars, but all signs point to a rush job. It’s a shame that the sound quality doesn’t match up to the picture quality in this release. On the bright side there are no signs of distortion or artefacts, and the dialogue is always well balanced over the rest of the sound effects. However, this is nothing that would not be found on any other run of the mill DVD release.

As always with Superbit titles, Once Upon a Time in Mexico includes no extra features. Just in case you were unaware, this is done intentionally so that compression can be kept to a minimum to increase the video and sound quality of the feature presentation. There is another release of the film out that has a ton of special features on it, so check that out if you’re interested.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico: Superbit
In making Once Upon a Time in Mexico director Robert Rodriguez has completed his el Mariachi trilogy. While I did not care for his movie I respect the fact that he took a risk in making the final instalment of this series stylistically different in hopes of keeping this film from simply being a remake of Desparado. The influence of Quentin Tarantino is lathered on this film so heavily that of I hadn’t known any better, I would have guessed that he was the director of this film instead of Rodriguez. If you’re a fan of the Kill Bill movies or loved the other Mariachi films, then I would recommend this film based on those elements. In speaking to friends about this movie however, there’s only one reason why I recommend this film: Johnny Depp. Depp’s performance in Once Upon a Time in Mexico is as good as anything he’s done. In fact, his performance in this movie is my favourite of 2004 (yes I’m aware this movie came out in 2003, but I only saw it a few days ago). His antics are very memorable and it’s a crime that he was overlooked by so many in 2003 for his role.