It doesn't take a genius to spot the Sergio Leone references in Robert Rodriguez's second sequel to his much-celebrated, low-budget debut El Mariachi. There's the title for a start. And then there's the fact Rodriguez has happily admitted he intended to ape The Good, The Bad And The Ugly in what he sees as his own Dollars trilogy.
Even if he hadn't spelled this out, though, it would have been clear enough from Once Upon A Time's sprawling plot. Set against the backdrop of a coup d'etat, it whirls around the machinations of CIA Agent Sands (Johnny Depp), who hires El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) to kill the coup-leading General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil).
Marquez, meanwhile, has himself been hired by wily drug baron Barillo (a tanned-up Willem Dafoe), Sands' ultimate quarry. Conveniently, El already seeks vengeance against Marquez for reasons revealed through several flashbacks. Oh, and Sands also enlists the services of a retired FBI Agent (Ruben Blades) to try and find out what's going on in Barillo's camp...
There's a lot going on here, and you can't help thinking Rodriguez should have extended his running time a bit. At a tight 90-odd minutes, Mexico lacks the epic grandeur of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and is unable to flesh out any of its principal characters in the way Leone could.
Rodriguez flits from character to character like a hummingbird suffering from nectar withdrawal, and you soon become dizzy trying to follow him. Furthermore, you never really have the chance to develop any empathy with the characters (with the possible exception of Blades' out-of-shape G-Man) or even appreciate the way they interact. Indeed, Banderas, Depp, Blades and Dafoe hardly ever appear on screen together.
Still, the result is rarely less than enjoyable. Rodriguez has never seen his Mariachi movies as being anything other than "goofy", so as a stylish, OTT action extravaganza this is still a worthy successor to Desperado and El Mariachi. There are some inventive set-pieces, including one which sees Banderas and love interest Salma Hayek escaping a hotel from a fifth-floor window while chained together at the wrists. Most fun of all is the presence of Mr Depp.
It's worth bearing in mind he shot Once Upon A Time before Pirates Of The Caribbean, because Sands is clearly a prototype for Depp's frankly cuckoo performance as rock-star buccaneer Jack Sparrow. An entertaining mix of cool ("'Mexico's my beat. And I'm walkin' it"'), quirky (wearing a T-shirt that screams "CIA" in huge letters) and downright evil (he shoots a cook for cooking a meal he considers to be too good), Depp ensures that most of the film's highlights - - and all of its best lines - - belong to him. '"Are you a Mexi-can'," he hisses at Danny Trejo's grizzled mercenary, "'or a Mexi-can't'?" Priceless.
Great to see Antonio Banderas back behind a guitar, but don't expect this to live up to the Sergio Leone comparisons. Once Upon A Time In Mexico may be a laugh, but it's no masterpiece.