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Film review: Once Upon a Time in Mexico

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Johnny Depp is quickly becoming the go-to guy in Hollywood when you need someone to bail out your movie — no matter how troubled it is.

He worked miracles with "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" (as fun as that movie is, try to imagine it without him). He's up to the same tricks in "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," filmmaker Robert Rodriguez's nonsensical wrap-up to his "El Mariachi" series.

This tongue-in-cheek revenge thriller doesn't make a lick of sense. But it does have Depp to buoy it up just long enough to keep audience interest alive until the film gets to the meat of the story — the action.

And once it does, those sequences — imaginatively-staged, as always, by Rodriguez — keep viewers hooked. (Be warned: as with its predecessor, 1995's "Desperado," this is a brutally violent, and deservedly R-rated, movie.)

Even though this film is a sequel to "Desperado," it almost could be considered the fourth film in the saga (repeated flashback sequences tease another, as-yet-unseen, third movie).

In this one, the nameless mariachi character (Antonio Banderas) is back. He's been in a state of retirement and lately has been doing considerably more guitar-picking than shooting.

He's brought out of retirement by Sands (Depp), a shady CIA agent who's got his own agenda. The manipulative American uses him, as well as a Mexican drug lord (Willem Dafoe) and a retired FBI agent (Ruben Blades), as part of a revolution scheme.

Sands' motives are unclear, but he does offer the Mariachi (called "El" by practically everyone in the film) one thing he wants: an opportunity for revenge against his most bitter enemies.

Rodriguez is clearly paying tribute to the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone here, but for a 100-minute movie this one is wildly overplotted. It's full of pointless digressions and needless background material that will leave many viewers scratching their heads.

Still, at times he really gets onto something. For example, there's an escape scene involving a chain that might be the best action sequence in a movie so far this year.

As for Banderas, he does brooding well. He also knows when to defer to Depp, whose wisecracking, wild-card character is a real hoot. (To say that much of his dialogue is quotable is putting it mildly.)

Unfortunately, Blades is underused, as is Salma Hayek (whose character is seen only in flashbacks).

"Once Upon a Time in Mexico" is rated R for graphic scenes of action violence (gunplay, stabbings, beatings and explosive mayhem), graphic gore, occasional use of strong sexual profanity and crude sexual slang terms, and brief drug content (use of tranquilizers, anesthetics and hypodermic needles). Running time: 101 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com