Down Mexico Way 

In the latest “Mariachi” installment, wit takes a siesta.

It seems practically impertinent to dwell on the almost wholly irrelevant plot, especially since many critics have sent up a chorus of howls about its alleged incomprehensibility. In fact, the movie is nothing but a gory fairy tale whose characters could have been plucked by a blindfolded child from a box of heroes and villains.

A very, very bad drug kingpin (Willem Dafoe) has hired a very bad general to knock off Mexico’s very good but very weak president. Meanwhile, a pretty bad CIA agent (Johnny Depp) plots to wipe out all three; the agency wants a compliant functionary of its choosing to run the country. But the American spook has coerced the wrong man into doing his dirty work: El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), whose wife (played in flashbacks by Salma Hayek) has been barbarously done in by the drug lord’s chief henchman.

Although a ruthlessly efficient killer, El, as he is often called, is pure of heart, the true representative of a virtuous-but-downtrodden people. He intends to protect his president, partly for vengeful reasons of his own, and partly, as he says in a hilariously unconvincing outburst of patriotism, “for Mexico.”

Any confusion viewers may feel is due not to the plot itself (ridiculous as it is), but rather to Rodriguez’s questionable decision to film what is essentially a cartoon of middling complexity in the elliptical, deliberately mystifying style of “The Third Man” or “Mulholland Drive.” As a result, the movie comes across not as a coherent narrative but as a series of uncannily interlocking trailers.

But few would take in a film like this for the plausibility of its story or the depth of its characters. Like the John Woo pictures from which it borrows so elaborately, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” asks to be judged by quite different criteria. Devotees of this genre have developed an exquisitely refined and, to an outsider, rather strange connoisseurship of cinematic death. They judge maimed human forms flying through space and the channeling of blood according to the kind of exacting standards that others apply to ballet or dressage. With such viewers in mind, Rodriguez devises round after round of feverishly choreographed gunplay, bloodletting and miscellaneous derring-do, some of which is undeniably exhilarating.

What the movie lacks, however, is wit. Rodriguez consistently strains to provide, by turns, bracing callousness, zany campiness, and knowing asides to his film-savvy audience, right down to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it homage to “The Godfather.” For the most part, however, he strikes the right note only at isolated moments and otherwise doles out heaping servings of laboriously hip cynicism. Depp’s character, for example, makes a hobby of scouring Mexico for authentic peasant cuisine and when he comes across puerco pibil that is too exceptionally good, announces his intention to kill the cook in order “to restore the balance to this country.” Instead of keeping the proceedings light, after a short while such elaborate jolly mayhem weighs them down.

With a cast as accomplished as this one, there are of course many things to divert us from the mess of operatic proportions unfolding onscreen. There is, for example, Banderas, who comports himself like the unflappable maŒtre d’ at a gargantuan feast of death, suavely conducting his enemies to their assigned seats in hell with crisp professionalism.

The closest thing to a moving performance is turned in by a surprisingly mellowed Mickey Rourke, who plays the role of a weary thug as if he himself were apologizing for the belligerent excesses of his Hollywood youth and now desired nothing more than the kind of low-key comeback role that has been granted to the likes of Burt Reynolds and Ben Gazzara. Out of gratitude for the few moments of relative quiet his scenes afford, we can’t help but wish him well. ** S

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