Not Long From Now: Once Upon a Time in Mexico
by Alex Keen
Published: September 18, 2002
Robert Rodriguez is one of the most successful independent directors making films today. Much of his success is due to his ability to multi-task, work inexpensively, and keep his movies fast paced. While the general public mostly knows of his “Spy Kids” series, film fans know Rodriguez as the man who made the inexpensive indie hit, “El Mariachi.” In 2003 he brings badass guitar cases back into fashion with “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” the third installment of the Mariachi legend.
“Once” is the third installment of the Mariachi series following the 1996 hit “Desperado”. According to an early script review at AICN, the films premise will revolve around the assassination of the Mexican President. There will be at least two other band members that team up with Mariachi. Throw in a corrupt CIA agent, a drug kingpin, a sexy federale, and a vicious love interest, and you’ve got the most explosive action film of next spring.
Since Rodriguez exploded onto the scene with “El Mariachi” in 1992, he has directed six and a quarter films. His follow-up was the 1994 straight-to-cable release, “Roadracers”. Starring David Arquette and Salma Hayek, “Roadracers” was a thirteen-day shoot that helped confirm for Rodriguez that even in Hollywood he could make cheap and fast movies. In his book “Rebel Without a Crew,” Rodriguez describes the result of his experiment this way: “I was very proud and even more excited to run out and tell young filmmakers out there that if you are willing to work hard and break rules you can have a blast and make good pictures to boot.”
Rodriguez’s first Hollywood film was the sequel to “El Mariachi,” “Desperado.” Starring budding Spanish crossover star Antonio Banderas, “Desperado” combined the atmosphere of a classic western with the explosions and over the top violence of 1980s action films. Rodriguez once again shot inexpensively -- budgeting “Desperado” (originally titled “Pistolero”) at $7 million. With an opening of $11 million and an overall domestic gross of $25 million, “Desperado” was a financial success. More importantly, it gave Banderas the opportunity to carry a movie completely on his own shoulders.
Following “Desperado,” Rodriguez teamed up with Quentin Tarantino for two movies in a row (three if you include Tarantino’s “Desperado” cameo). In December of 1995, Miramax released “Four Rooms.” A unique feature that was actually four short films that share the same setting and star, “Rooms” once again teamed Rodriguez with Banderas. While the film financially “broke even” ($4 million budget, $4 million domestic gross), it must have been a disappointment for Miramax due to the talent involved.
In 1996 Rodriguez and Tarantino teamed up on the horror/action film “From Dusk Till Dawn.” Starring George Clooney, Tarantino, and Harvey Keitel, “Dusk” featured a script by Tarantino, and editing and direction from Rodriguez. Possibly due to the blended genre of the film, “Dusk” under-performed at the box office. With a budget at $20 million, it opened to $13.2 million and had a $25.8 million domestic gross ($8.4 million foreign gross). Released by Miramax’s sister (or brother maybe?) company Dimension Films, “Dusk” would eventually become a successful straight-to-video franchise.
Rodriguez’s next feature was the teen horror film, “The Faculty.” A box office success, “Faculty” was Rodriguez’s first film since “Roadracers” without a whiff of Tarantino. His next film would be as far from Tarantino (and from “Mariachi”) as a film could be. In 2001, Rodriguez made a children’s spy flick starring two unknown rugrats. An early April release, “Spy Kids” was probably not expected to be the phenomenon that it became. Budgeted at $35 million, “Kids” eventually made $113 million domestic (at least $19 million in international box office). The action/comedy was an obvious and successful departure for Rodriguez, and helped renew his name a marketable commodity in Hollywood. It’s sequel, “Spy Kids 2: Island of Dreams”, has made a profitable (but somewhat under whelming) $77 million domestic so far.
Johnny Depp in "Once Upon a Time in Mexico"
For “Once” Rodriguez is returning to his roots, making a western from the Mexican perspective. This time he adds some familiar faces to his cast with Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes and Enrique Iglesias. Rodriguez favorites that will be returning include Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, and Salma Hayek. According to Entertainment Weekly, Tarantino will not be appearing.
The box office potential for “Once” seems somewhat limited, but does have breakout potential. According to a quote from Latino Review, the Hispanic population in America sees more movies than any other “race.” However, films featuring a Hispanic star over the past ten years have not had extensive box office success. While Banderas’s “The Mask of Zorro” (opened to $22.5 million) and “Spy Kids” are probably the most noteworthy successes, his inability to open an R-rated film above $8 million is a daunting statistic. Jennifer Lopez has the highest opening weekend tally for an R-rated film starring a Hispanic lead with “The Cell” (opened to $17.5 million).
The box office prospects will ultimately fall on the marketing and the quality of the final product. While Rodriguez has proven that modern Mexican westerns can be profitable, he has yet to successfully navigate one to blockbuster status. If “Once” is successful enough, Rodriguez has mentioned plans of making a fourth chapter. From his interview with Latino Review: “Well I'm showing Johnny Depp a scene where he's walking down, double guns, all bloody, walking down, slow motion all shot up, and a thick voice over from the seventies goes…can't give his name away, but I'll say, the man, the man in black is back…Once Upon A Time In Mexico Part 2…he'd love to come back and do it again. It was so cool, the movie was so fun. He got to do some really great stuff, he was great in action. He never does action. I'm like, I thought you never like to do action? He said, ‘You've converted me.’”
One thing is for sure; “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” should be an intense and explosive experience in March. And if it fails at the box office, “Spy Kids 3” is already in the works.