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For those of you who already know everything that Robert Rodriguez has ever done, you might like to do what he does by not wasting any valuable time in these next few paragraphs. But if you'd like to read a little overview of who this man is and why he's adored by fans the world over, then be my guest. He has barely made a dozen movies in as many years so far, however it's the quality that makes them stand out.

Once Upon A Time In Mexico
If there's one thing you can say about Mexican director Robert Rodriguez is that he knows how to hook you into his movies. Whether it’s his unique take on existing genres, the creation of unforgettable characters, or simply his own style of action and special effects, there is at least one quirk within each that will make you to sit up and take notice. In the case of Once Upon A Time In Mexico, it is unarguably Johnny Depp's performance as a psychotically humorous C.I.A. agent that identifies this as a bona fide Rodriguez flick. Robert's rise to fame is along the same independent lines as that of his friend Quentin Tarantino, in which they have both provided a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale loaf of Hollywood bread. QT's latest martial arts revenge tribute, Kill Bill, is also a production of love, even if some hate it.

Once Upon A Time In Mexico is the third (well, maybe fourth) story in the El Mariachi series, and indeed each of these movies marks the evolution that has developed throughout Robert's career. The first one, El Mariachi, was shot with 16mm cameras for budgetary reasons; Desperado was given an upgrade to the current Hollywood standard of 35mm; and now Once Upon A Time In Mexico represents the future of moviemaking by utilising some of George Lucas' hand-me-down High Definition Digital cameras created for Star Wars 2: Attack Of The Clones. As Robert Rodriguez points out, it's not the technology itself that makes a good movie, it's the way in which you use it that counts. It also helps if you can give the audience something that they haven't seen before, or at least provide a new angle on old themes.

In particular, From Dusk Til Dawn redefines the word cool as Robert confusingly satisfies his audience by setting up a rather compelling crime drama and hurling it face-first into a deliciously new artistic derivative of the vampire genre -- it can be easily interpreted as watching two movies in one. This effort was followed by The Faculty, which at first seems like yet another rip-off of your typical teen comedy and Body Snatchers type of films. Nonetheless, he cleverly reinvents typical character stereotypes and even provides an intelligent self-referential insight into whether these kinds of flicks are actually real-life documents to events that the government would rather you not know about. Then there is his Spy Kids trilogy, with the last instalment having been filmed in 3D; although with TV technology improving upon the current plasma-screens right now, it won't be long before we watch this particular movie in the same way that has been made famous in IMAX theatres with its polarising method of 3D reproduction.

Whilst none of Robert Rodriguez's movies are deemed masterpieces at this time, in years to come he could be known as the man who helped pave the way for a new revolution in moviemaking practices. As he says, HD digital frees up the creation process in a way that film never could, and that creative people are often the last ones on earth to adopt a new technology or way of doing things. I feel that there is always good and bad in the world of change and HD has presented yet another double-edged sword to contend with. I agree on his positive viewpoint regarding the reduced costs that HD moviemaking can provide for the future of Hollywood, however it will also make everyone a lot more complacent and (dare I say it) spoilt with the ease that this format will provide. Everyone from cast to crew will be expected to produce a lot more work on any given day and I'm sure that the new generation of movie mogul executives will be wondering why an actor needs four or five takes for a scene when they should only ever need one or two at most. Also, the image artistry that has taken decades to perfect for shooting on film may well disappear without a trace by the next century, but then that's what today's DVDs are for!

Once Upon A Time In Mexico
The typical Hollywood mentality says that if it ain't broke don't fix it, but directors like Robert Rodriguez know that an engine will eventually die if it isn't at least given an oil change once in a while. Whether you love him or hate him, Robert Rodriguez knows how to stand out from the crowd.

Movie
Set several years after the events of Desperado, El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) now lives the life of a recluse. He was finally able to get his life back on track until his wife Carolina (Salma Hayek) and their child were mercilessly gunned down by Colonel Marquez (Gerardo Vigil), of which these events are told in flashback. A rogue C.I.A. agent named Sands (Johnny Depp), who has been living in Mexico for a while now, surreptitiously recruits the vengeful El Mariachi to take out Marquez, but only after the Colonel's plans to assassinate the President (Pedro Armendariz) have been carried out first.

Current drug-cartel lord Barillo (Willem Dafoe) is the mastermind behind this dastardly scheme, but his right-hand man-in-hiding Billy (Mickey Rourke) grows ever more weary of Barillo's quest for power. The triple-crossing Sands also approaches ex-FBI agent Jorge (Rubén Blades) to take out long-time nemesis Barillo, to which Jorge finds an ally in Billy to help each other finally give what's coming to Barillo. An assortment of other characters also appear out of nowhere, such as Sands' partner-in-chaos and police officer Ajedrez (Eva Mendes), small-time informant Belini (Cheech Marin) and freelance hit man Cucuy (Danny Trejo) all intertwined in a confusing web of deception and greed. El Mariachi seeks the help of his friends Lorenzo (Enrique Iglesias) and Fideo (Marco Leonardi) to maybe sort out this mess.

The stylistic comparisons between Once Upon A Time In Mexico and its predecessor Desperado are that Once Upon A Time In Mexico is glossier, visually dynamic, over-the-top and more action-packed than ever before. However, the overly complex plot and twice the number of characters involved in it makes us care for them even less than before (although we love them all the same), and it is even somewhat lacking in RR's signature black humour, which is given an overall extra shine in Desperado. Don't get me wrong, Once Upon A Time In Mexico is an entertaining ride, especially with Johnny Depp stealing the show in this current storybook to the El Mariachi series; but what it has lacking in darkly comic situations is made up for by a rather intriguing storyline. So if you are prepared to watch it more than once just for the plot, then you will find that there are many more layers just waiting to be peeled back with each subsequent viewing.

Even though Once Upon A Time In Mexico has some new and inventive action set-pieces for the stunt-hungry movie-goers out there, it still gives the impression of a retread rather than a brand new spare tyre. There is one frenetic stunt sequence that has MTV editing written all over it, but whilst it is really cool for things like reloading guns etc, the method should only really be used in moderation rather than to excess.

Video
Being an all-digital production usually elevates a DVD into the ‘Best Picture Award’ territory, however it's not quite all guns and roses here. I thought I'd establish this fact now rather than later since there are really only a couple of niggly shortcomings that stop this image from enjoying the perfect score. Shown in its fully filmed (er, recorded) frame of 1.78:1, the image has been opened from the initial 2.35:1 matte created for exhibition in the cinemas originally, although I'd hate to think what it looked like back then.

Once Upon A Time In Mexico
As is obvious from the word Burito, the colour scheme in nearly every shot is fully saturated due to the HD format, even if it is majorly biased towards the orange and red hues. The unfortunate side effect is that there doesn't seem to be much contrast or dramatic highlights present in what you usually find in a big-budget Hollywood movie. However, Robert Rodriguez only ever created this movie under the pretext of a huge experiment to test out the versatility of these new HD cameras, so the potential for this format is largely unexplored so far. Black levels are very deep and the shadow detail is surprisingly rich considering the aforementioned lack of overall brightness in the image. Sharpness, clarity and a complete lack of bloom are what you should expect from this new technology and this DVD rendering does not disappoint on any of these levels. Grain is not even a word to be associated with the HD format either. Compression artefacts usually go unnoticed with all the frenetic action onscreen, however pausing on key frames can reveal certain difficulties associated with the DVD MPEG2 encoding process.

Oh yeah, about that niggly. Well, this has everything to do with the HD camera format rather than any DVD encoding, and that is with fire. I haven't seen a less convincing image of explosions or even the lighting up of a cigarette since the day that the T-1000 walked out of the burning tanker in Terminator 2 - both of these movies exhibit this similar problem for almost the same reasons. Every fiery flame that we see was created for real on location, but the digital recording process leaves it looking rather flat with no body at all. My guess for this unnatural looking flaw is because the cameras are set up to fully exploit the colours of each area that was shot, which means that the more powerful visual sources such as fire can be over-rendered by the camera. Unfortunately for this reviewer, I cannot in good faith say that HD is yet a perfect imaging system - the CGI-created fiery balls of flame in Attack of the Clones actually look more realistic.

Audio
As you may know already, Robert Rodriguez had his hands in virtually every single pie in the production process. This way he could generate everything from within his own home studio (read more in the extras). That said, the result of this soundtrack is an involving one, yet is also a restrictive experience in that it was undoubtedly a rushed production that did not allow for some additional refinements.

Both the English and Russian DD 5.1 dubs enjoy a nice three hundred and sixty degree wraparound quality, with some unexpected but pleasant ambient sounds emanating from a different speaker every few seconds. There are plenty of gunfire, explosions and music to revel in with the third chapter of the El Mariachi series, but a lot more could have been achieved had more time been allocated for an accomplished mixer to weave his or her aural magic here. The subwoofer is disappointingly underused in some places, most notably with the guns and automatic weapons which sound more like party crackers rather than the threatening death-dealing creations that they ought to be (except maybe for El Mariachi's shotgun). As it stands, there are many events that simply go begging for some much needed underpinning of bass action. However, the final mix is absolutely clear and without any unnecessary artefacting or distortion, from the in-your-face dialogue to the brilliantly realised epic orchestrations and guitar playing composed and performed by the director himself. It's a shame though that Tito Larriva was only given a cameo part as a taxi driver rather than giving him a chance to spread his musical wings again as in Rodriguez's earlier celluloid offerings, but the overall experience is still well suited to the action and drama present.

Once Upon A Time In Mexico
This is a typically fun and enjoyable soundtrack for this kind of movie, but the really peculiar thing is that Desperado is even more exciting to listen to, maybe because of the underlying humour involved.

Extras
After watching this supplemental material, I have learned that Robert Rodriguez is a man who doesn't like to waste time at all. Whilst this DVD doesn't hold that much in terms of in-depth behind the scenes material it also lacks unnecessary padding, and this is how Robbo likes everything to be. You begin to appreciate the speed at which he is accustomed to working nowadays, and if nothing else he is able to inspire anyone to give moviemaking a go even if you've never had the desire to do so beforehand. The extras available on this DVD are along the same lines as those found in his previous two Mexican Guitar-playing movies as well as what is available on the Spy Kids Trilogy of DVDs.

First up is the Audio Commentary by director Robert Rodriguez, who has plenty to say and not enough time to say it in. This guy makes moviemaking sound so easy, but most of what he has learned was self-taught when it comes to scripting, filming, production, editing, scoring and special effects creation. The Deleted Scenes (eight minutes) are a welcome addition, if only so that we can understand how there is a need to shoot things at the time even if they eventually become unnecessary to the movie as a whole (it's much better to have them than to not, which is the lesson to learn here). The Filmographies are just listings of movies that the director and main actors have been involved with; nothing that you couldn't find out on IMDb really. The Trailers are for all three El Mariachi movies in the series so far, plus another one for The Mask Of Zorro. The DVD-ROM features are basically two Shockwave Flash games, one being a simple shoot-em-up with the bad guys and the other being some sort of choose-your-own-adventure with multiple choices to make the most money before being killed; neither are terribly interesting.

There are also many Featurettes that take us on a wonderful overview of where Rodriguez started in his creative endeavours to where he is today. The entertaining Ten Minute Flick School (nine minutes) has many before-and-after shots of raw footage with the final movie images, although it would have been nice to view some of the intermediate stuff such as the necessary wire-frame lockdowns as well; these are also expertly commentated by the big man. Inside Troublemaker Studios (eleven minutes) is an enviable tour around his converted house in his native Mexico that has everything you would ever need for creating your own movie masterpiece at home. Ten Minute Cooking School (six minutes) invites us into his kitchen so you can create the same delicious pork dish as enjoyed by Johnny Depp's character Agent Sands. Film Is Dead: An Evening With Robert Rodriguez (thirteen minutes) is an intelligent Q&A conducted after the digital screening of the movie with RR talking at the speed of light (or thought as he eloquently puts it) - his experiences with HD help him to convince budding moviemakers to adopt this technology if it is to compete with the more profitable of multimedia endeavours (such as interactive computer-gaming) around the world today. The Anti-Hero's Journey (eighteen minutes) takes a self-analytical look at the El Mariachi character and what he represents, much like how Bruce Lee himself was deemed as a hero to the common people. The Good, The Bad and The Bloody: Inside KNB EFX (nineteen minutes) investigates the techniques used by the crew that put the Evil Dead trilogy on the world stage. They discuss how they had to unlearn all the tricks used to make film look good to how they now have to be created in exacting detail for HD digital instead.

Once Upon A Time In Mexico
This R2 DVD is missing an additional Isolated Music and Sound Design soundtrack in DD 5.1 which is available on the R1 disc; it would be of extreme interest to those with a penchant for aural stimulation.

Overall
Even though Once Upon A Time In Mexico was an all-digital production from camera to dual-layer disc, this fact is not stated anywhere on the DVD packaging, but doing so would probably have told the interested buyer that this is all it has going for it. As much as Attack of the Clones claims to be the first one hundred percent digital live-action movie ever produced, this coveted title should really go to Once Upon A Time In Mexico instead. The reason is because Attack of the Clones is really only ninety percent CGI effects with ten percent real actors and sets, whereas Once Upon A Time In Mexico is effectively the other way around. However if you still disagree with this assessment then I ask you, previous to this movie, where else have you seen real-life dust, smoke, explosions and flying pigeons recorded and reproduced in HD-digital form? And no, I don't count 28 Days Later or other such video productions where the resolution is less than that of a computer game.

It goes without saying that this is definitely the must-buy disc of the month ... well, probably only for the hard-core Rodriguez fans out there. Other casually interested persons of this movie may well want to rent this movie before shelling out their dosh, and some will just shrug their shoulders and mutter "enh!" to themselves then walk away. Once Upon A Time In Mexico is definitely the yang in Desperado's yin.


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