Once Upon a Time in Mexico

dir. Robert Rodriguez

Opens Fri Sept 12 at a buttload of theaters. Two things must immediately be said of Once Upon a Time in Mexico: Unlike Desperado, director Robert Rodriguez's 1995 big-budget introduction of Antonio Banderas as El Mariachi, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is not a love story; Salma Hayek's Carolina--who sometime between the end of Desperado and the new film became Mrs. El Mariachi, and the mother of a little girl--is dead. Hayek's screen time is less than five minutes, and most of that seems to be played by a stand-in.

The other thing that must be said is that this is not Banderas' movie by any means. It is Johnny Depp's, and were it not for his now-indisputable status as the world's greatest living actor, there would be no reason to see Once Upon a Time in Mexico at all--unless you geek to Rodriguez to the point that the unfathomable plot turns make up for the loss of Desperado's romantically paced gunplay.

Depp plays the comically egotistical American CIA operative Sands, sent to Mexico (where he brags he's become deeply imbedded in "his beat," yet a Chicle-hawking kid nearly causes the operative to shit his pants in startlement). Drug lord Barillo (Willem Dafoe--resplendent in touristy silver jewelry, as is his Chihuahua-carrying associate Mickey Rourke) is making it look like he plans to assassinate El Presidente, while Sands hires El Mariachi to kill the double-crossing presidential aide General Marquez, who works with Barillo but plans to assassinate El Presidente himself. Oh, and the FBI is involved, too. Confused? That's the point.

Depp pops off some great lines ("Are you a Mexi-can or a Mexi-can't?" To the Chicle kid: "Why would I want a Chicle?"), and for all his character's attempts to maintain his cool, his matter-of-fact "Okay, I'm going to freak right out," is fucking hilarious. Forget about everything the El Mariachi "trilogy" has come to represent in the past, and see Once Upon a Time in Mexico for Depp. That is the only aspect of the film that doesn't sell the audience short. KATHLEEN WILSON

Herod's Law

dir. Luis Estrada

Opens Fri Sept 12

at the Metro. Released in 1999 to great acclaim, Herod's Law is a beautifully photographed political satire set in rural Mexico. The story is not all that original: A minor member of the then-ruling party (1949) is selected to run a small town at the end of civilization. At first Juan Vargas (Damián Alcázar) is a good mayor: He attempts to clean up the town, shut down the whorehouse, correct the greedy priest, and modernize the area. But after repeated pressure from the madam of the whorehouse, he accepts a bribe and rapidly disintegrates into the most corrupt mayor the town has ever known. He accepts bribes, sleeps with the young whores, and murders and slanders opponents. What makes this rather tired material interesting is that it begins as light comedy and ends as heavy tragedy. When the new mayor arrives in town, his actions, his ambitions, and even his lust for the young whores are funny; but when the murders start, and when he beats and locks up his wife for being unfaithful to him, all of the humor evaporates and the bare cruelty of his corruption becomes excruciating. CHARLES MUDEDE

Matchstick Men

dir. Ridley Scott

Opens Fri Sept 12 at a buttload of theaters. Ridley Scott has never been known for a feather touch; when given the choice during his lengthy career between beauty of image and subtlety of character, image has almost always trounced. But surprisingly, subtlety is in abundance in his new picture Matchstick Men, and the result is his best film since Thelma & Louise.

The film stars Nicolas Cage as Roy, an emotionally destroyed con artist in cahoots with a partner named Frank (Sam Rockwell). Scratching out a living coaxing cash from the elderly, Roy and Frank swindle with skill, but the life is taking its toll on Roy, who is saddled with near-crippling tics and obsessive behavior. At Frank's suggestion, Roy visits a shrink, the shrink helps dig up Roy's lost daughter, and soon father and daughter and partner are swindling together. The end result is much twisting and turning, with a dash of healing father-daughter relations tossed in for flavor--healing relations that somehow manage to avoid derailing the picture.

With smart cons and impressive performances from Nicolas Cage and Alison Lohman, Matchstick Men is a solid, well-made, and entertaining flick, surprising and big of heart--an all-around success, save for one possible caveat: There's a coda that many will find insulting and unnecessary, but that eventually reveals itself to be a more complicated addition than you'd expect. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

So Close

dir. Corey Yuen

Fri-Thurs Sept 12-18

at the Varsity. So Close is Hong Kong's response to The Matrix, which appropriated the city's action choreography. It also reappropriates The Matrix's look: its global aesthetic of corporate towers and slick information systems that are used or abused by men and women in black power suits. The film concerns a pair of assassins (Zhao Wei and Shu Qi) in the service of a ruthless software corporation. The assassins are also sisters, and their father was a brilliant scientist who developed a technology that, if it were real, would have been the dream device for Homeland Security: a total visual awareness system. For reasons not made clear, this technology was to make the world a better place; for reasons that are made clear, the scientist is murdered for his invention. The dead scientist's daughters become assassins in search of revenge.

The kung fu scenes involving the slim and nimble women are very entertaining, and the slow-motion bullet thing is taken to a new level. Though its tricks and motion effects are now absorbed by Hollywood, Hong Kong cinema still produces the best action films. CHARLES MUDEDE