One of the many vagaries of being an avid pop-culture follower is that most people can't understand how you can plausibly get worked up, say, about the perniciousness of some horsey slattern for the right like Ann Coulter when you're still clearly upset about the idea of Debra Messing getting an Emmy for Will & Grace. How can you profess concern for the highest ideals of our society while rolling around in the lowest forms of distraction? What qualifies as significantly troubling to a person who can watch Entertainment Tonight and still digest food? To make matters worse, I can't even supply a concrete answer to that query, except to say that I feel like Winona Ryder in Reality Bites, who when asked by a prospective boss to define irony responds desperately, "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." Recent case in point: Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico, a film so appallingly violent it should be distressing to even the most devoted fan of action fodder.
Now, before I head into all this, let me tell you that "Schwarzenegger with a gun and a grudge" equals "plans for Christmas Day" in my book. A pissed-off Kurt Russell? Put me down for two, please, and you can tell me what Jim Lehrer has to say about Pakistan during the trailers. You can't throw steaming matinee crap without me running excitedly after it with my catcher's mitt. By all superficial appearances, then, Rodriguez's overblown sequel to his own, highly diverting Desperado should be allowed to blow overit's testosteroned bunk, but who cares, right? Didn't you want Antonio Banderas with sweat on his brow and bloody vengeance in his heart? Well . . . there's escape, and then there's blatant disregard for humanity.
It's a fine line sometimes between cartoonishly corrupt audience-pleaser and alarmingly high- profile snuff film, and Rodriguez has leaped right over it. I recently felt quite sated watching vampire hit woman Kate Beckinsale mindlessly gun down unfortunate werewolves in Underworld, but the Rodriguez film still sticks uncomfortably to my ribs. I wholeheartedly attended the flick on its opening weekend and have felt guilty and slightly soiled ever since. The movie has Johnny Depp stumbling around Mexico, crossing and double-crossing Banderas and others, while all around him usually, in fact, because of himlegs, arms, and other appendages are casually set free from their moorings in chic, hyperbolic detail. To make matters worse, he's eventually led through the morass, eyes bleeding but still ready for slaughter, by a helpful little boy. Once Upon a Time in Mexico is an hour and a half of carnage in a time when it feels like any one of us might really be blown to bits and, of course, when many of us already have been.
No one wants to be remembered as the person who bad-mouthed the bullets of a future classic like Bonnie and Clyde, or who couldn't see the artistry in Sam Peckinpah through The Wild Bunch's bloodletting. But let me tell youI haven't seen something this extravagantly awful since Robert Altman's Pret à Porter let Kim Basinger try her hand at improv. If ever there were a film to raise protests about mind-numbingly irresponsible violence in popular culture, Once Upon a Time . . . is it.