Blood sport

Winking violence meets its demise in Once Upon a Time in Mexico

For a time, the Hong Kong action films perfected by John Woo and Tsui Hark breathed new life into the American action film. The cartoonish brand of violence, in which the balletic hero could acrobatically defeat hundreds of gun-toting thugs while peeling off jokes in the process, took some of the edge off the gratuitous, humorless bloodletting that had begun to define Hollywood action films.

Now chronically overused by Hollywood, the Hong Kong effect has turned into a video game gimmick, in which filmmakers see just how many outrageous amputations and dead bodies they can pull off without inspiring audience guilt about the gratuitousness of it all.

In Once Upon a Time in Mexico, that violence-with-a-wink has finally lost its edge, circling around to become the same old blood sport it always was. Replay a joke too often and the impact is gone, and Rodriguez’s overuse of old movie riffs and smirking brutality is a joke that goes on for far too long. At a certain point, self-referential comedy just becomes the thing it is mocking in the same way the boozy anti-showbiz vibe of the Sinatra/Martin rat pack eventually became just another canned cliche of the showbiz it was mocking.

For decades now, Westerns have specialized in reluctant heroes: good, wounded guys who don’t want to get involved in violence, but must.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico boasts not only a reluctant gunslinger, “El Mariachi” (Antonio Banderas), who’s so uneasy about showing his cards he keeps his weaponry hidden in his guitar case. It also boasts a reluctant FBI agent, Jorge Ramirez (Ruben Blades), who wants to avenge a buddy’s murder but can’t work up the nerve.

In Rodriguez’s decisively cynical Western, the drug kingpins, the CIA, the FBI, the cops, the lovers and the allies are all equally corrupt, so you might as well just shoot into the crowd, because chances are you’ll hit an asshole.

El Mariachi, the musical gunfighter who debuted in Rodriguez’s 1992 indie hit El Mariachi and returned in 1995’s Desperado, is now embroiled in a linguini-tangled plot. “El” is hired by Agent Sands (Johnny Depp), a rogue CIA agent-cum-frat boy with a penchant for disguises that include Dr. Strangelove mannerisms and a rude “Jackass” wardrobe of ironic T-shirts.

Agent Sands wants to use El to kill the evil Gen. Marquez (Gerardo Vigil), who is conspiring with the local Barillo drug cartel to assassinate Mexico’s president on the Day of the Dead.

Covering his bases but good, Sands has also enlisted retired fed Ramirez — also motivated by a deep urge for revenge — to kill vicious drug cartel chief Barillo (Willem Dafoe). He is aided in that mission by Barillo’s reluctant aide-de-camp Billy (Mickey Rourke), he of the bolo tie, mincing manner and lapdog, who has grown fatigued at carrying out his boss’s sadistic orders.

In the tradition of gloomy spaghetti Westerns, from which Mexico borrows, money is not enough to move a man as principled as El, so revenge must move him instead. Audiences are uncomfortable with rooting for men who kill for money, so heroes must instead be driven by deeper, weirdly warped “moral” rationales. We learn in flashbacks nearly as gratuitous and prolonged as Mexico’s violence, that the General killed El’s wife Carolina (Salma Hayek, looking like some scrumptious spokesmodel for a tequila ad) and young daughter years before.

The road to the strangely anticlimactic showdown between El and the slimy General is paved with endless scenes of El battling the cartel thugs as he glowers from beneath a mop of black hair. These awkward, circusy vignettes of outrageous gunplay are probably meant to distract from Mexico’s essential problem: a plot chasing its own tail, very, very slowly.

Rodriguez does not disappoint in his post-mod Tarantino-generation irreverence, from the opening credits to his outre casting of Rourke, Dafoe, Cheech Marin and Depp, rigged out like some Rodriguez Follies in eye-patches, gold rings and a layer of bronze Mexican-in-a-bottle tanner. Rodriguez has an absurdist, snarky wit, joking about bad cell phone signals and allowing his camera to be splattered with blood to remind us it’s there. But the comedy that initially keeps the action bouncing along is soon swamped by the incessantly bloody, bullet-flying pyrotechnics.

There are never enough jokes to distract from the same-old Hollywood roller coaster rides of daring escapes in the path of an exploding fireball and an endless barrage of thugs casually dispatched by the hero. Showing his indie cool, Rodriguez references an array of cheesy, excessive films from the obvious ones (those by Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah) to the less obvious (The Invisible Man and, in an oddly highbrow note, Oedipus Rex). Mexico is the kind of self-referential material done by a man who knows his pop film history. That doesn’t mean he can escape it. Rodriguez wants to joke that Hollywood action films are essentially dumb and manufactured. Mexico proves his point brilliantly — but not exactly in the way it was intended.