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Film / Once Upon a Time in Mexico

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Once Upon a Time in Mexico is the third film of the Mexico or Mariachi Trilogy, directed by Robert Rodriguez.

We open with crooked CIA Agent Sands (Johnny Depp) seeking the legendary gunman El Mariachi, notable for using a guitar case full of guns as his primary weapon. Throughout the movie, El Mariachi's backstory is revealed in a number of flashbacks; prior to the events of this film, his wife Carolina and child were murdered by soldiers of the ruthless Mexican General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil). General Marquez is working for Barillo (Willem Dafoe), a drug cartel kingpin who has plans to assassinate the president of Mexico and assume power. Mariachi agrees to kill Marquez after the President's assassination, as he will gain too much power if he lives.

Sands proceeds to recruit a retired FBI agent named Jorge Ramirez (Rubén Blades), whose partner was tortured for two weeks and killed by Barillo years earlier. He unwittingly participates in Sands's plot to overthrow the Mexican government and plans to kill Barillo and his lackeys once they outlive their usefulness.

Sands also enlists the services of his ex-girlfriend, AFN Agent Ajedrez (Eva Mendes), who is also hunting Barillo.

With so many c(r)ooks in the kitchen, it's no surprise that the plan goes completely tits-up.

Keep in mind, this movie has nothing to do with Once Upon a Time in the West or Once Upon a Time in China, nor is it in any way related to Once Upon a Time in America (except perhaps as a Shout-Out - there's no question of the influence of Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns on Rodriguez). It is also not related to Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. Or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

This film provides examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: A month later, a character played by Johnny Depp will again use the phrase, "Savvy".
  • Affably Evil: Sands is a callous and corrupt CIA agent who lets politicians get assassinated, plots to send an entire country into chaos for money, puts the lives of his own men in danger, murders people for extremely petty reasons and shoots innocent cooks because they cooked his favorite dish too well. However, he's a very whimsical person and his laid-back attitude makes him very likable.
  • The Alcoholic: Fideo.
    "I don't think. I drink."
  • Amusingly Awful Aim: Subverted. After Agent Sands is blinded he is faced with two mooks. He starts shooting left and right, not anywhere near the mooks, in order to make them laugh, letting Sands know precisely where they are so he can shoot once again - this time accurately.
  • Arc Words: "What do you want in life?"
  • Ass Shove: A preoccupation of Sheldon Sands.
  • The Atoner: Billy Chambers.
  • Badass Bystander: The people of Mexico do not appreciate insurgents fucking up their home. And messing with their Presidente.
  • Badass Crew: El Mariachi and Co.
  • Bad Boss: It is implied that Barillo sent his piano teacher to be mutilated — for being "condescending".
    Chambers: You want me to break his fingers?
    Barillo: No. I want you to cut them off.
    Chambers: Hey, I was just makin' a joke.
    Barillo: I wasn't.
  • Bar Brawl: In the flashback in the opening scene.
  • Biblical Motifs: In the commentary, Rodriguez says that the image of Sands staggering around with his eyes put out and bloody 'tears' on his face was inspired by an image of Samson he once saw.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Armando Barillo and General Marquez.
  • Blind Weaponmaster: Sands after losing his eyes.
  • Blown Across the Room: Oddly enough, it seems that the victim flies farther if he is shot with a smaller gun. Rifles and carbines cause people to crumple to the floor. El's shotgun sends men tumbling ass over kettle. And at one point, a wounded soldier is shot by what appears to be a holdout pistol and is literally sent sliding across the room.
    • Played with in that El shoots a guy who is falling down off a balcony, so this shot only accelerates him faster to the ground, and his death.
  • Body Double: Played With. They find a man who generally resembles Barillo. Then they cut off his face and kill him to make it look like Barillo had died getting plastic surgery. Ramirez figures it out when he notices that Barillo's jewelry was poorly fitting on the body's fingers.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: Ajedrez leaves Sands alive to wander the streets of Culiacán City, albeit blind, then when they meet again she fails to notice that he is using his fake arm, allowing him to shoot her.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: Subverted: Through most of the movie, there is never enough money to change hands to fill a briefcase, so Sands puts it in lunch boxes. Which the money obviously still doesn't fill. By the end of the movie, the Mariachis end up making off with a sum of money so large, it fills both of their guitar cases and still leaves enough for them to end up stuffing their shirts with it.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Sands is a visibly eccentric character and often uses a pair of fake arms, which eventually turn out to be useful. He uses them to shoot an informant under the table and one last time to kill Ajedrez.
  • Captain's Log: Ramirez was constantly giving a running commentary on what he was doing into a concealed tape recorder, presumably to be used as a record of what he thinks is a semi-legitimate investigation into a drug lord.
    • If one assumes that he is the Hero of Another Story (as he is presented in the movie), then this could very well be the source of the narration if he were the star. As it is, he ends up spending much of the movie talking to himself and commenting on whatever foolish thing he is about to do, as well as justifying the fact that he is explaining (to nobody in particular other than the audience watching the movie) the significance of various minor details.
  • Cartwright Curse: By now El Mariachi has had TWO love interests killed.
  • Chekhov's Gag: The prosthetic arm, which doesn't hold up to close scrutiny. Real-life spy work is a little harder than it's depicted in Get Smart. The joke's on Ajedrez, though, when Sands hides his real arm. The now-blind agent shoots her in the gut as she's taunting him.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The little boy selling gum. Incredibly useful when you've just been blinded.
  • The Chessmaster: Sands, initially.
  • Church Shootout: The first big shootout that takes place in the present day.
  • CIA Evil, FBI Good: Sands is a complete jackass of a CIA agent who casually murders a cook who made his favorite dish too well within the same scene that introduces him and orchestrates the events that lead to the bloody coup attempt of the film's climax either for the hell of it or because the CIA has some greater scheme in place that requires the death of the President of Mexico (in the end, it's left pretty abiguous). On the other hand, Ramirez is a heroic FBI Agent who is in Mexico to get revenge for a fallen friend who was murdered by the Barillo Cartel and is one of the many men who help save the life of the President in the Gambit Pileup of the climax, killing Barillo himself.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Agent Sands is just plain weird.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Sands at first appears to be critical of bullfighting:
    The bull is stabbed, prodded, beaten. The bull is wounded. The bull is tired before the matador ever steps into the ring. Now, is that victory? Of course it is. Want to know the secret to winning? Creative sportsmanship. In other words, one has to rig the game.
  • Comically Small Demand: Belini actually asks for less bribe money than Sands initially offers. Sands brings it, not in a briefcase, but a yellow lunchbox.
  • Covers Always Lie - See the above picture with Salma Hayek in it? She's not really a major character because she's DEAD in this film and only shows up in flashbacks. Johnny Depp's character is also of secondary importance to Antonio Banderas's, yet Depp is in the foreground.
  • Dashing Hispanic: Any character played by Antonio Banderas, and El Mariachi is no exception.
  • Death by Irony: Ajedrez. Killed due to failing to notice that a blind man had a third, fake arm.
  • Death of a Child: El's daughter is killed prior to the movie's events.
  • Didn't See That Coming: Said by the source of it: "You really didn't see it coming, did you?"
  • Dirty Cop: Ajedrez.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Billy Chambers started working for the Barillo Cartel after fleeing the United States only because he had nowhere else to go; he confesses to Agent Ramirez that he's got nothing to show for his fugitive years except his dog, the clothes on his back, and a litany of crimes even more unspeakable than what he did in the States. At the end, when Agent Ramirez corners Barillo and his Mad Doctor:
    Barillo: (to Chambers) You're just going to stand there?
    Chambers: I'm afraid anything but standing's going to cost you extra.
  • Dual Wielding: During the chuch shoot-out, the Mariachi wields a Rossi Overland Sawed Off Shotgun and an Iver Johnson Enforcer Pistol.
  • Even Evil Has Standards:
    • There is one ridiculous scene in this movie where during a shootout in a church, everyone pauses for a few moments because an old lady who is the only person there besides the shooters all of a sudden gets up and decides to leave. She walks out as everyone stares at her; she is completely oblivious to the fact that just a few moments ago, bullets were flying everywhere and people were dying. She must've been blind and deaf, because without that excuse her behavior definitely qualifies as Too Dumb to Live. That or this is nothing new to her.
    • One of the mooks guarding Agent Ramirez is uncomfortable with torturing him. He had a bad experience that really turned him off to the whole thing.
  • Evil Is Petty: Marin's character thinks he's smart: he explains to Sands that he intentionally low-balled his fee since no one would ever kill somebody over such a trifling amount. We'll never know if Marin was right, as Sands kills him anyway in a fit of pique, then pockets his cash and cocaine. And kills the completely-innocent waitress who accidentally spilled a glass of water. And the chef because he made the dish Sands ordered too well. Dick.
  • Evil Makes You Ugly: Barillo, post-surgery.
  • Evil vs. Evil: Sands is betrayed by Ajedrez, who is even more evil than he, and has his eyes removed. He is left alive to stumble around for the rest of the movie with blood seeping out of his eye sockets. Sands refuses to just leave it at that, and pursues Ajedrez to the Presidential Palace for a rematch. Despite being shot multiple times in the legs, he emerges victorious.
  • Eye Scream: Poor Sands. If you want to know, he got his eyes drilled out, and near the end we get to see his empty sockets. Fun. You get to see the approaching drill from Sands' point of view.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Cucuy, though he wasn’t a good guy by any means to begin with. It doesn't work out too well for him, though, as Barillo has him garroted to death.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Ajedrez fails to notice that Sands evidently has three arms. And to think he was the blind one.
  • Final Battle: The entire Day of the Dead sequence is one, where the people of Mexico fight back against Marquez's forces, while El Mariachi saves the President and goes after Barillo and Marquez.
  • Fingore: Discussed in regards to Barillo's piano teacher.
    Billy: You want me to break his fingers?
    Barillo: No. I want you to chop them off.
    Billy: I was making a joke.
    Barillo: I wasn't.
  • Firebreathing Weapon: Lorenzo has a flamethrower disguised as a guitar case.
  • For the Evulz: Sands kills a chef just because he believes the guy made his favorite dish of slow-roasted pulled pork too perfectly - and then justifies it as "maintaining balance." He also sabotages a bullfight by rigging the bullfighter's suit with an electric charge that paralyses the man long enough for him to be gored to death so that Sands could profit off of betting on the bull.
    • Although left ambiguous, the possibility is obvious that the CIA actually wants to prevent the assassination, and Sands is letting it happen because "why not?"
  • Foreshadowing: Sands tells the boy selling gum that he "...never want[s] to see your face again." He later has to rely upon the kid to be his eyes after his eyes are taken away.
  • Fun T-Shirt: Sands wears a great variety of obnoxious touristy T-shirts throughout the film—Johnny Depp thought the character would be the type to wear them and asked his sister to look around her hometown in Florida for the worst ones.
  • Gambit Pileup: We have Sands' plan to manipulate Mexico's politics, Marquez's and Barillo's plan to perform a coup d'etat, Barillo's own plan to fake his death, El Mariachi's Roaring Rampage of Revenge aiming for Marquez, and that's just the biggest players in the board.
  • Gratuitous Spanish: Most of the dialogue is presumably in Spanish via Translation Convention, but some words are kept in Spanish, presumably for flavor, or for words that don't carry their connotations through a translation.
  • Groin Attack: Done to two mooks during Mariachi's escape from Marquez's compound by grabbing and twisting, complete with some rather unsettling sound effects. OUCH.
    El Mariachi: What do you want from life?
    [Mook drops his gun]
  • Guns Akimbo: While not as prominent as in the last movie, the Mariachi does do his share of this, often with different guns in hand rather than a matched pair.
  • Handicapped Badass: Sands, who is evidently willing to let mooks take potshots at his limbs just to echolocate them and blow them away.
  • Heartbroken Badass: El Mariachi
  • Heel–Face Turn: Sands becomes significantly nicer after having his eyes gouged out.
    • Billy Chambers helps Ramirez take down Dr. Guevara, but at the cost of his own life.
  • Hero of Another Story: Former FBI Agent Ramirez.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Sands' plot backfires spectacularly on him.
  • Hurricane of Puns: Pretty much any time anyone talks to Agent Sands after he loses both of his eyes.
    See anything you like?
  • Idiot Ball: Many characters are guilty of holding the ball over the course of this film, most egregiously Ajedrez. She leaves Sands alive to wander the streets of Culiacán City, albeit blind, then when they meet again she fails to notice that he is using his fake arm, allowing him to shoot her.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Marquez's motivation for pursuing and ultimately killing Carolina.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Sands manages to kill a total of three mooks while blind. He first fires a number of wildly inaccurate shots, then when the mooks laugh at him, he zeroes in on the sound.
  • Improbable Weapon User: El Mariachi, Lorenzo, and Fideo.
  • Instrument of Murder: As part of the admittedly embellished story Belini tells Sands, El Mariachi wields an electric guitar machine gun.
  • The Ketchup Test
  • Kick the Dog: Cucuy's henchmen shoot the old guitar-maker for no discernible reason. Cucuy later threatens to do the same thing to Mariachi's entire village after switching sides from Sands to Barillo, which is about the point where Mariachi decides he's had enough of him and his men and decides to kill them all.
    • Sands himself shoots the cook of a restaurant because he cooked Sands' favorite dish too WELL. His reasoning was that if this one guy cooked it so great, Sands would never enjoy it cooked by anyone else, so he kills him to "restore the balance." Sands also murders a waitress for no particular reason.
    • Barillo orders Billy Chambers (as opposed to the rest of his army of mooks) to hurt and kill people specifically because of Billy’s distaste for violence.
  • Kill It with Fire: One of the mariachis has a flamethrower disguised as a guitar.
  • Knee-capping: Mariachi blows both of Marquez's kneecaps out with his sawed-off just before delivering the killshot to the head.
  • Kubrick Stare: El Mariachi is a master of it.
  • Licked by the Dog: Billy Chambers's Chihuahua. Literally.
  • Legendary in the Sequel: This film considers El Mariachi a legendary badass.
  • Mad Doctor: Dr. Guevara, who not only specializes in face transplants but also sidelines as a Torture Technician. He's the guy who takes Sands's eyes.
  • Meaningful Name: Ajedrez, which means "chess," foreshadowing her strategic manipulation of Sands. May also be a pseudonym to cover up the fact that she's Barillo's daughter.
  • The Mole:
    • Ajedrez.
    • The President's unnamed advisor is working for Sands and (indirectly) Barillo and Marquez. It’s nothing new for him either, as he says, "He is not the first prince I’ve served, nor is he the first one I’ve betrayed.
    • Ramirez bribes Billy Chambers into a Heel–Face Turn by promising that he would be allowed to return to the United States. He lied. To be fair, he wasn't lying out of villainy. He just didn't have that kind of power anymore. Had he lived, it's possible Sands could've worked out a deal for him.
  • Molotov Cocktail: One of the many weapons used by Mexican partisans to hurt the soldiers attempting the coup.
  • More Dakka: A couple of the townspeople convert a taco stand into a rolling mount for a Hotchkiss machine gun.
  • Mumbling Brando: Depp did a good one here.
  • Mythology Gag: Billy's chihuahua is called Moco.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • For his cameo as a priest, Johnny Depp does a Marlon Brando impression.
    • Barillo is a lot like the Mexican drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes , who actually died during a cosmetic procedure to alter his image as he was being pursued by both Mexican and US law enforcement agencies
  • Off-the-Shelf FX: When Sands is blinded, the blood was created using a mixture of Hershey's strawberry and chocolate syrup.
  • Overt Operative: Agent Sands makes no secret of the fact that he works for the CIA. Lampshaded at one point, where he wears a t-shirt on which is printed the words "C.I.A.: Cleavage Inspection Agency".
  • Pants-Positive Safety: Sands keeps a backup pistol down the front of his pants. Which he takes out by unzipping his fly.
  • Pet the Dog: Billy Chambers is genuinely fond of his dog and even sacrifices himself to save it.
    • Sands is protective of the kid who is helping him after Sands gets blinded.
  • The Plan: Sands thinks he can pull one off, but it crashes and burns.
  • Pistol-Whipping
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Carolina is only appears in flashbacks on account of being killed off because Salma Hayek was busy starring in Frida.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Billy Chambers
  • Retired Badass: Ramirez. Also El Mariachi, technically.
  • Retired Monster: Billy Chambers is wanted for unspecified serious crimes in the United States, but only works for Barillo because he has nowhere else to go. He hates Barillo and the things he forces him to do and would happily face justice in America to get away from him.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Sands is a CIA agent... who wears a "CIA" (Cleavage Investigation Agency} T-shirt.
  • Revenge: Key motive for El Mariachi and Ramirez. Also, arguably, for Sands towards the end.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified: Both averted and played straight. The conspirators attempting the coup d'etat are clearly evil, but the Mexican people rise against them to defend their president.
  • Rogue Agent: It's not clear how much Sands is working under the CIA's direction vs doing his own thing to "restore balance." At the very least, he improvises after getting burned in the final act.
    • Ramirez is a retired FBI agent who thinks he's been recruited by the CIA for an important mission, but it's pretty clear that he's a patsy. He ends up making the best of it when things spin out of control.
  • Rule of Cool: This film practically runs on it.
  • Sean Connery Is About to Shoot You: Sands on the DVD cover.
  • Senseless Violins: It wouldn't be a Mariachi movie without guitar cases full of guns.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Sands, blinded, blood running down his face, wielding a machine pistol - a very obvious reference to Kiriyama's final scene in Battle Royale.
    • Quentin Tarantino suggested the film title, pointing out that this film could be compared to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West.
    • There are a few references to Sin City, which Robert Rodriguez filmed after this movie. First, when Sands shoots Ajedrez in the stomach after getting kissed by her, it's an identical picture from "A Dame To Kill For". Earlier in the movie, when Barillo makes Sands blind, there is almost an exact picture from "Hell And Back". Other similarities are the scene with El Mariachi and the priest in the confessional booth (as seen in "The Hard Goodbye") and the subplot involving facial reconstruction (as seen in "A Dame to Kill For").
    • For the final confrontation, Sands as a cowboy, dressed in all black, is a direct homage to El Topo. Sands is blinded, bleeds out of his eyes, is left for dead and undergoes a transformation. El Topo also goes through a transformation, as he is shot stigmata-style, bleeds out of his wounds and is left for dead.
  • Smug Snake: Sands seems to think that everything will go his way and acts as such. It doesn't.
  • Shoot the Builder: In an example that is more petty than usual, part of Agent Sands' Establishing Character Moment is him deciding that, after he's done eating a plate of his favorite type of Mexican food, he will go to the restaurant's kitchen and kill the cook because he made the plate too well. Sands explains it to Marín, he believes that a plate this good disrupts the universe's balance in some way, and by killing the cook he will restore it. He then proceeds to do so after killing Marín for trying to betray him, plus an innocent waitress for being a witness/spilling water.
  • Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome: Sorry, Carolina, but this franchise requires that our hero be in a perpetual state of seething anguish, so you had to go. At least she gets one last action sequence (in flashback) before she dies.
  • Tears of Blood: See Eye Scream
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: So, so often.
  • Thinking Out Loud: Sands with his "Walking My Beat" monologue, Ramirez appears to be doing this if you forget that he's literally monologing everything he is doing into a tape recorder.
  • Third Act Stupidity: The movie would have ended a lot sooner had El Cucuy used a real gun rather than a dart launcher.
  • The Vamp: Agent Ajedrez
  • Torture Always Works: When Ramirez gets captured, a pair of mooks discuss if they should torture the ex-FBI agent. One argues against it: "I was tortured once. I didn't like it. You know what the really fucked up part was? They tore out my left nut. That really turned me off to the whole thing."
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Sands will kill for puerco pibil.
    • Actually, he kills when he finds a chef who cooks it TOO well. Sands is obsessed with the idea of "maintaining the balance" in Mexico, which involves screwing up the nation's politics as well as its restaurant industry...
  • Trilogy Creep: Robert Rodriguez originally planned to just leave it as a duology. It was Quentin Tarantino who suggested making it a trilogy, in homage to Sergio Leone.
  • Un-Installment: Inspired by the realization that many viewers of Desperado did not originally know that the movie was a sequel to El Mariachi, and thus were confused by the numerous unexplained but obviously important flashbacks, this movie includes many references to important events that took place in a movie that never happened, such as the murder of El's wife and daughter.
  • Why Don't Ya Just Shoot Him? - So many times. Beneficiaries include Sands, El Mariachi, and Ramirez.
  • You Have Failed Me: In a scene deleted from the film, Marquez shoots the aide informing him of El’s escape.
  • Your Other Left: When Sands is blind shooting at the thug following him and the "Chicle boy" and aiming based on the latter's directions.
    Sands: Was that my right or your right?
    Chicle Boy: Mi derecha.
    Sands: Oh.