Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

In many ways Orson Welles and the French New Wave did a great disservice to film, because they convinced future generations of filmmakers that a director should be an auteur, not a hired hand, and that an auteur should be creating all aspects of his projects.

If you think about that, it is entirely illogical. Should Shakespeare have been involved in building sets and writing music and directing his plays, or could he have used his time more wisely by letting other people do that stuff so that he could do what he had a great talent for? You see, very few people have the broad gifts of Michelangelo or Orson Welles - the brilliant mind, the wit, the scholarship, the visual imagination, and so forth. Those guys come around about once ever three centuries. Set your alarm clock for the 23rd century. Most of the people who have created the greatest works of mankind were not broad generalists, but specialists. Charles Dickens didn't worry about music and lighting and temperamental actors and set design. He just lived and wrote. The same goes for Tolstoy and Hemingway and thousands of other creative geniuses.

Which brings us to Robert Rodriguez, who is a great director, but nobody will ever find out, because he isn't a great writer.

In many ways, he is one of the five best directors on the planet today. His movies are virtuoso works of technical wizardry and visual imagination. His ability to bring a story to life is nearly unparalleled. The sights and sounds and stunts in his films are so impressive that they nearly disguise the fact that there is no script at all. A bunch of people kill a bunch of other people in very impressive and athletic and exaggerated ways. The end. Oh, he has some good jokes along the way, and a few interesting situations and a few iconic (if cardboard) characters, but not a storyline. He's not a writer, just a polisher. Take away the over-the-top cartoon pyrotechnics and he doesn't have enough story to fill out an episode of Mannix, and what he does have seems to have been written by a 10th grader in a weekend.

And not by a tenth grader really into the project, but by one who had to turn a story in for a school assignment due on Monday.

Because he can come up with some good situations and dialogue, R.R. doesn't need a writer so much as he needs a co-writer, or maybe he needs to buy some source material, like an Elmore Leonard story. Either way, he needs to have something interesting happen in a movie besides "guys shoot and torture other guys in cool ways, repeat if necessary". When he does attempt plot, it is generally incoherent.

Right now his career is trending in the wrong direction. (IMDb ratings).

  1. (6.99) - Mariachi, El (1992)
  2. (6.82) - Bedhead (1991)
  3. (6.70) - From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
  4. (6.70) - Desperado (1995)
  5. (6.40) - Spy Kids (2001)
  6. (6.10) - Faculty, The (1998)
  7. (6.01) - Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (2002)
  8. (5.90) - Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
  9. (5.07) - Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003)

Note that the first four movies are still the best four, and the two lowest rated films were his last two. Let's look at that chart with some groupings:



Films 1991-1994      6.91

Films 1995-1997      6.70

Films 1998-2002      6.17

Films 2003 -           5.49

Of course, this sort of career path can be altered. The same observation could have been made about Sergio Leone circa 1980, and Leone is the director most comparable to Rodriguez. They are both vastly talented. They both made iconic quickie Westerns. Making adjustments for the epoch in which they were made, Leone's violent "Spaghetti Westerns" are very comparable to Rodriguez's "Tortilla Westerns". Rodriguez's Mariachi character is similar in many ways to Leone's Man With No Name. Both men made films with "Once Upon a Time ... " in the title. 

The good news is that Leone recovered. In 1980 people were saying, "where is the talent that he demonstrated back in 1964-68?" Then, out of nowhere, a 50ish Leone made one of the greatest films ever assembled, "Once Upon a Time in America".

Rodriguez also has that kind of talent.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Commentary by director Robert Rodriguez

  • Music and sound design track with commentary

  • Ten Minute Flick School

  • Ten Minute Cooking School

  • Eight deleted scenes with optional director's commentary

  • Inside Troublemaker Studios

  • The Anti-Hero's Journey

  • Film Is Dead: An Evening with Robert Rodriguez

  • The Good, the Bad, and the Bloody: Inside KNB FX

  • DVD-ROM: Test your wits in the shooting gallery

  • Widescreen anamorphic format

Critics were generally deferential to this film simply because Rodriguez obviously does have that kind of talent. I generally liked the film as well, because it has a lot of entertaining moments, so I ignored the chaotic thought process behind it and the cardboard characterizations, and really enjoyed a lot of things about it.

But I can't help but think this:

On the DVD special features, Rodriguez brags about how fast he can make a movie. This movie is rated 5.9 at IMDb, and it is the third consecutive film Rodriguez has made in that general range or lower. I suppose he can churn movies like that out at the rate of two a year forever, and make a lot of money.

Yup, he can probably get away with this until he dies, and he'll probably get rich in the process.

But why is a man with 8.0 talent content to make 5.9 movies?

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 3/4, BBC 2/5

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 5.9/10, Yahoo voters score it a B-.
  • Box Office Mojo. It grossed $56 million. Production costs: $29 million. Marketing distribution costs: $20 million. It was not a blockbuster, but when all revenue sources are calculated, it will make everyone a lot of money.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C. It's an entertaining and often very cool movie, but this director can do so much more.

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