Early in Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico (Columbia), there’s a scene that could have driven audiences nuts with excitement. Handcuffed together, the guitarist action hero El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) and his wife, Carolina (Salma Hayek), elude a score of assassins with automatic weapons by leaping from a high window and descending like a Slinky from fire escape to fire escape—the first hurtling through the air as the second slams into an iron platform, then the second doing the hurtling and the first the slamming. Cool! There’s a problem, though. The scene is a flashback in the middle of an already confusing sequence, and the audience has no idea why the two are handcuffed together or even who’s chasing them. And if you say, “Duh, they’re handcuffed because they’d been, like, captured, and then got away, and the guys who are chasing them are, like, bad guys,” it’s still, like, “Who gives a damn?” Without a setup or a clear narrative function, there’s no emotional heft: It’s just a bunch of flashy tumbles and a lot of noise.
The whole movie is like that: showy stunts, explosions, over-the-top acting, fiesta colors, lurid angles, and a sense of nothing—nada—at stake. Intended as the final installment of what Rodriguez’s buddy Quentin Tarantino has termed the “El Mariachi trilogy” (the first was El Mariachi  and the second Desperado ), the movie is an overstuffed piñata dropping bodies like candy. The scrambled scenario, with its campy nihilist killings, might have worked if Rodriguez were a whiz at action, but he has much more enthusiasm than flair. The credits boast he wrote, directed, photographed, and “chopped” the film, and it’s chopped, all right. Even that clever fire-escape scene is brusquely edited, in a rhythmless, bash-along style. Despite the A-list cast and the epic plot (the “Once Upon a Time in” title promises mighty historical forces), the picture is no better than any other piece of straight-to-video bloody junk at your local Blockbuster.
Poor Banderas—a good actor, still showing the world what he can do, here just a stringy-haired silhouette. Hayek doesn’t even have a real scene: She’s reduced to legs, lips, and boobs in hurtling flashbacks. Danny Trejo has a good scorched face for thrillers, and Rubén Blades manages to hit some notes of real emotion as an ex-FBI guy lured out of retirement to avenge a murdered partner. But Once Upon a Time in Mexico will mostly be remembered as another pedestal for Johnny Depp’s weirdness. As a CIA psychopath with no discernible grand scheme, he entertains himself with Brando and Nicholson impersonations, murders people for absurdist reasons, then does a blind-gunfighter turn when his eyeballs get drilled out. I still find something unfilled-in about Mad Johnny, but he has style.
Matchstick Men (Warner Bros.) is at the opposite extreme: It’s a blah little exploitation picture that thinks it’s a deep humanist parable. Nicolas Cage is a con man whose bad conscience has done a Freudian number on him: Without medication, he becomes a twitchy obsessive-compulsive. His hungry partner and protégé (Sam Rockwell) finds him a new therapist (Bruce Altman), who suggests confronting his past—in particular the wife he left pregnant many years ago. Soon there’s a 14-year-old daughter (Alison Lohman) poking around—and, wouldn’t you know, she wants to learn the con. Should Dad, in his quest to bond with his little girl, induct her into the life that has made him rich but reduced him to a basket case?
Matchstick Men is set in a ‘60s-airport, hyper-modern L.A., with doses of Sinatra swank: Fine, if it didn’t recall Steven Spielberg’s far more soulful Catch Me If You Can (2002). The director, Ridley Scott, apes hotshot young directors by mixing speeds and throwing in fancy zooms and jump-cuts. But for all his virtuosity, he can’t shoot a simple scene between two characters to make you care about either one. It’s a testament to the cast—especially Altman, as the smugly humanist shrink—that the movie is mildly tolerable. Cage comes off OK, despite so many tics that I feared he’d get Lyme disease.
I dislike con-men pictures because I resent being put in a position to root for people who in real life would happily target chumps like me. Making the chief con man less happy about it doesn’t help, somehow. But my real problem with Matchstick Men is that it didn’t con me well enough: I saw every trick up its sleeve in the first 20 minutes. If everything had been what it seemed—now, that would have been a stunning twist.