80’s Trash of the Week: The Beast Within

It took me seventeen years Tom! Like the cicadas! But I came back!

One of the many movies my 12-year old posse suggested I sneak-watch on HBO in the ’80s was a film called The Beast Within. I missed it, and only now have I rectified it. And it’s got everything we wanted in a movie back then- scary shit and boobies- in preponderance. If only I’d seen it back then, it would have fueled such nightmares. The story of a young man who feels like a stranger in his own skin… with a beast inside that commands him to kill!

This medication may cause swelling and brain moles.

The movie begins in ’64 with the McClearys on their wedding night, driving in the rain. The car goes off the road, and when hubby Eli (Dick Jones from Robocop) goes to get a tow truck, his wife hears dogs barking and gets scared, and goes looking for him. In the woods she is confronted by a strange creature that knocks her silly. And while she lies unconscious, it tears off her clothes and bumps some very uglies with her. So gals, next time ditch the heels and walk in the rain. A few blisters is a lot better than waking up under a rapey monster with forest litter in your butt crack.

Who knew that Dick Jones suffered so much before he joined OCP?

17 years later, the McCleary’s son is in the hospital with an unknown disease giving him fevers, making him waste away no matter what they pump his IV with. His parents are at a loss, and decide to face the horror of that evening, and seek out the dark secret of how their son Michael was conceived. It brings them back to the town of Nioba where it all began, where the townsfolk all seem to know something they won’t let on.

They hit the newspaper archived and the police station, while Mike has torn out his IV and struck into the night. He hears voices and has tormented dreams of being locked in a basement cell, driven by something… within! This leads him to the home of an ornery old man who’s just sitting down to a fine dinner of raw meat. Michael feels a sudden compulsion- heralded by the buzzing of cicadas- and with a sudden flare in his eyes and flash of teeth, he’s tearing the old man’s throat out for a midnight snack, and the miracle cure for his wasting condition.

“I like my meat RARE!”

After he’s gorged on flesh and blood, he passes out in pretty Amanda’s front yard. Bad luck, honey. She gets him back to the hospital, where his new fortitude is seen as a miracle. As his parents dig around, Sheriff Pool (veteran character actor LQ Jones) leads them around and tells them about the mysterious night Mr. Curwin died- torn to pieces before his house was burned down- the “only violent time in this peaceful town.” But Mike’s out on the prowl again, sniffing after Amanda now. She’s quite eager, and takes him into the forbidding Black Fens Swamp for an eerie make-out session. But she gets more than Mikey’s roaming hands, when her dog dumps a severed arm in her lap.

“Wanna make out in this godforsaken swamp?”

The police start digging and find dozens of skeletal remains- when Doc Odom recognizes an artificial hip he put on one of the bones. And the dark depths of the town’s secret is slowly revealed. For Mike wants to stay in town- he seems to know everybody, people he’s never met, and he’s charged with purpose 17 years in the making. The Sheriff starts digging up graves and finds the coffins loaded with rocks; but when they go to question undertaker Dexter Ward- Michael’s already been there, embalming the man alive. Something- perhaps the beast that sired him- has Michael screaming for vengeance, and he will not be denied.

“J’ever notice how much a skull resembles a bowling ball?”

I thought this was a werewolf movie, but if there’s one good thing about it, it is startlingly original. For instead of transforming into a wolf, Michael eventually sheds his skin and becomes a sort of monstrous bug-eyed cicada with claws, for no reason anyone can explain. Even when the Beast Within bursts forth and becomes the Beast Without gnawing on every Curwin in sight- and the Judge is forced to tell the town’s awful secret- even he doesn’t know why! A guy got locked in a basement for messin’ with another man’s wife, and starved until he ate the corpse of the adulteress to survive. And then the husband decided to feed basement boy corpses for 17 years, until he killed him and escaped, and decided to rape Mrs. McCleary in the woods that night. Couldn’t they have made him eat cicadas? That’s pretty gross.

The transformation in all its gory glory

Despite the movie making no sense, it is strangely watchable. The suspense level is kept high, as Mike gets grungy teeth and gnaws on people, and a slit appears between his shoulder blades, portending that the beast within wants to get out and party. Sadly, the beast that finally emerges looks a lot like a slimy critter from It’s Alive! 3: Island of the Alive (full review). It’s a bit of a letdown, but the transformation is agonizing- it was one of the first movies to use (and overuse) air bladders under latex make-up, so his head swells like a balloon. He finally sheds his skin after pulling a few Curwin’s heads off, and we get to see Mike’s face hanging from the branches, discarded like a cheerleader’s lingerie on prom night.

Who wants to make face jerky?

The film delivers on Joe Bob Briggs’ requirements- two boobs and a bucket of blood- by having the story come full circle; the Cicada monster finds Amanda unconscious after a car wreck, and has its slimy way with her. There’s also a very gratuitous set of freezer boobies in the morgue kill scene, which had me laughing. But overall, The Beast Within was worth a rental 26 years later. I’d put it in the same league as Evilspeak (full review), one of my guilty favorites. Instead of Clint Howard we get LQ Jones and Ronny Cox- “Dick” the evil executive from Robocop– and they help make this confused exploiter a good time. The novel is supposed to make more sense, but it doesn’t have a Rapey Cicada Monster. So what’s the point?

Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?

Bonus: The DVD comes as a double feature with Stan Winston’s first film- The Bat People, one of the lowest rated films on IMDb. And the bat dude looks like Brown Hellboy. I had enough bad movie fun and skipped it.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 2
Could it be remade today? Oh, please please do.
Quotability Rating: Low
Cheese Factor: You could melt this on nachos.
High Points: Mikey’s Magic Head Balloon
Low Point: Chop meat on a dying man’s feet. Really?
Gratuitous Boobies: One, two, three pairs of boobies! ah, ah, ah.

Thriller: They Call Her One Eye

I’ll cry when I’m done killin’

Thriller: A Cruel Picture was recommended by Moon in the Gutter, a fine movie blog. It’s Swedesploitation- a Swedish revenge picture, about a girl who was rendered mute by a sexual assault at a young age, who undergoes even more horrors in early womanhood, and wreaks her justice upon those who have wronged her. She cannot scream for vengeance, but she sure can inflict it.
Never get in a car with a guy named Tony

A very matter of fact depiction of what would have been called “white slavery” in the ’70s, young Madeleine misses her bus, takes a ride with a handsome cad in a sportscar, has a drink and wakes up shot full of heroin and forced to sign a contract that makes her a whore. Our mute heroine is played by the innocent darling Chrisina Lindberg- a gorgeous pin-up girl ubiquitous in the ’70s- a feisty yet naive brunette who is soon entrapped in a hell of addiction and debasement. She claws the face of her first john, and Tony brutally maims her to break her spirit, cutting her eye out with a scalpel. According to IMDb the shot was done with a corpse, and it’s easily one of the most disturbing eye shots you’ll see this side of Un Chien Andalou.
From then on “One-Eye” performs with a pink eye patch, servicing her customers silently to feed her addiction. The film proceeds with a minimalist neorealism, as One-Eye meets fellow enslaved prostitutes like Sally, who tells of her plan to save enough to flee to Switzerland to a rehab clinic. Eventually One-Eye manages to return home to her parents- who have killed themselves in their grief over her disappearance. Soon after, she spends her money on lessons in karate, shooting and stunt driving, in preparation for her revenge. This is interspersed with her sex work- johns such as a twisted photographer, a sadistic woman who wants to dominate her, and hardcore scenes with a beefy ape impaling her to disturbing synth tracks- a descent into madness.
Her revenge is a slow-motion death dance as she shotguns and kicks her way through johns, pimps, and police. Most impressive was a punch that spewed a laser whip of bright red blood from the victim’s mouth, as if he had a chameleon tongue. When the time comes, she changes into a black eyepatch and dons a long black coat- in fashion way before The Matrix and steals a police car, straight out of Vice City. It reminded me more of El Topo (full review) than anything else, though it lacks the obvious symbolism. Bright red blood, stylized death dealt without excitement. One-Eye’s silence becomes evocative as she quietly mows through her victims and coldly serves an unimaginable, fairy-story torture on her pimp, showing that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it pull a man’s head off. Or can you?
The film was brilliant to me in its Michael Haneke-esque indictment of the viewer, taking a Penthouse and Playboy centerfold, making her a mute sex assault victim and a maimed prostitute, and making us watch her in hardcore sex scenes. It certainly drained the eroticism out of seeing her gorgeous body, whether that was director Bo Arne Vibenius’s intention or not. According to his bio, he wanted to make a sleazy picture to recoup the losses from his previous film and made an unlikely hit. It’s arthouse meets grindhouse, and just as disturbing today.



This was recommended by Tractor Facts movie blog, so I gave it a shot. I also liked Ong Bak: the Thai Warrior and The Protector (Tom Yum Goong) a lot, so more Thai martial arts films are welcome. Chocolate is pretty good, but takes 1/3 of its time to spiral up, and feels like something from the Luc Besson factory at times. Then again I love movies where women kick ass, and Zen- an autistic girl whose parents are brutalized by thugs- studies Tony Jaa on TV and learns she can replicate his moves. She’s a Muay Thai savant! Sure beats counting toothpicks.

This leads to many fight set pieces as she starts collecting money from thugs to pay for her mom’s hospital bills. There’s one in an ice block cutting factory, a meatpacking plant, another atop building signs on the third floor above a city street. Directed by Prachya Pinkaew- who did those two Tony Jaa movies I mentioned- and starring newcomer JeeJa Yanin as the lanky and flexible fighter Zen- she always looks like she could really kick some ass, and the fights are all fun to watch. Sometimes she channels old school Jackie Chan.

On the other hand there are lots of interludes with Zen on swingsets or screaming at flies- her Kryptonite- that get a bit old. It needed a little less Rain Man and more Sling Blade. As action movies go it is pretty good, following the typical revenge formula as Zen tries to avenge her mother against the thugs, engaging in Kill Bill style sword battles and whatnot. I wasn’t very engaged but I liked the fights a lot, so it’s worth a viewing if you like the chop socky.


Rating: Worthy

Shotgun Stories

Channeling David Gordon Green and using his cinematographer, Shotgun Stories is an excellent breakout film by Jeff Nichols about two sets of sons of a now-reformed alcoholic bastard of a father, who finally meet. At first it sounds like a redneck joke, but give it a chance. Michael Shannon plays Son- wearing scars from a shotgun blast on his back and simmering with unrequited rage. His brothers are Boy- a likeable basketball coach who lives, as they say, in a van down by the river- and Kid, the youngest and most lost of the three. He lives in a tent on Son’s lawn. But he’s got a girl he wants to marry someday. Their names make evident how little they were cared about by their runaway father and their “hateful woman” of a mother. We meet them through quiet, muted vignettes of their poor, common lives- working at fish farms, trying to run an air conditioner off a car battery, holding court on the front porch. It could be a joke on Arkansas if it wasn’t handled by someone who grew up there.
One day mom shows up to tell them their Dad has died. In a brief scene we learn all there is to know about their past. “When’s the funeral?” “You can find out in the paper.” “You going?” “No.” Well, Son and his bothers do go, and find their father’s new family grieving over his coffin. Son says that whatever good he did after he left them will never erase all the wrongs he committed, and spits on the corpse, sparking a blood feud. The “new family” only knew a loving father, and is outraged; the first set of boys only knows an abusive monster.
It does not spiral into a revenge or rednexploitation film from here, even though it easily could. If anything, it resembles the excellent Dead Man’s Shoes, but is much more reserved. Amazingly, first time actors- especially “Boy,” and “Shampoo,” a local instigator who seems to treat the two sets of sons like ants to make fight- hold up to Michael Shannon’s organic ability and piercing eyes. If you thought he stole the show in Revolutionary Road you owe it to yourself to rent this.
Like Green’s All the Real Girls and George Washington, Nichols’ Shotgun Stories deftly captures the feeling of small town rural life, and makes us pay fierce attention to its subtle maneuverings. This is one of the best overlooked films of last year and encapsulates the pain of being wronged, and the difficulty of coming to peace with it. The film does not end as you might expect, and even when no one’s inner rage is bursting forth, it’s a good time sitting with these boys. And if you pay close attention, you’ll learn the shotgun story.


I love a good World War 2 movie. The problem is we’ve heard so many of the stories from that war. Well now Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Glory) and Daniel Craig (James Bond) are telling us one we haven’t heard before about the Bielski Partisans, Polish Jews who fought back against the Germans and saved 1200 people by camping in the forest. It’s an amazing tale and makes you wonder if the city folk of the ghettos were as well armed as their country cousins, if they could have fought back the onslaught of Hitler’s blitzkrieg. But that’s something for writers of Alternative History fantasy books and nerds rolling dice in their basements to decide.

Defiance is the tale of Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) and his brothers, who come home to find their mother and father murdered by German soldiers. When they find out that a local constable has been pointing out the Jews for the invading Germans, Tuvia takes a pistol and goes to the man’s house for revenge. From then on they are fugitives, hiding with friendlies and making quick raids for food and to kill soldiers when they can. But other Jews who escaped the trains to the camps begin to find them. Not all can fight. And those aiding them are murdered. So Tuvia and his brothers Zus (Liev Schrieber), Asael and Aron take to the woods with them.
The forests are deep. They begin with simple lean-tos, but eventually have a huge camp with small cabins, soup lines, and scheduled food raids. The locals don’t take too kindly to being raided, and Tuvia tries to spread the pain around so no one suffers too much. Some give freely, but others need the persuasion of gunpoint. Survival is survival; the thefts are not glossed over. The camp grows and grows, and everyone brings sad news of towns emptied of Jews- either killed or herded to the trains. Zus wants to be true partisans, to fight the Germans, but Tuvia would rather “save one old Jewish woman than kill ten Germans.” And this brings the film its only real conflict.

This is what gives the film a bit of depth, because when your enemy is the Nazis, there is little ambiguity. Instead, we get to think about whether it is more noble to save the innocent, or fight evil. In the end we need to do both, but it is not always an easy choice. The movie does not dwell too long on these tough choices, but does not ignore them. It is not an easy task for Tuvia to lead his people. Some fight, and all work. The fighters want a bigger share of their meager meals. They bring a German soldier prisoner, and Tuvia’s declaration that they will not behave as animals is put to the test.
But in the end this is a war movie, and the action is excellent. As partisans they fight with ambushes and guerrilla tactics, and Zwick does not gloss over the violence. A car full of German officers and their dates are ambushed on the way to a party. There is no hesitation. The Jewish women fight as well, for guns are the great equalizer; and they die, in numbers, without sentiment. They are women fighting for their lives, not Ewoks. Their lives and honor are just as important as the men’s. Zus fights with the Russian partisans and learns that “comrade” be damned, they have no love of Jews either; Stalin’s “socialist principles” are only enforced when it serves the right purposes.
I enjoyed Defiance, but like Zwick’s other epic films- Legends of the Fall, Glory, The Last Samurai, and Blood Diamond it has an old-fashioned Hollywood quality with broad appeal and background characters drawn in stereotype. The smaller characters seem like functions of the plot and filler for color- we have an apolitical teacher and an intellectual hashing out whether Stalin will be any better than Hitler, which is ironic to us with 20/20 hindsight. The women and younger brothers fade into the landscape. The women take up with the men without the usual courtship and call themselves “forest wives,” but most of them blend in with the trees. But like Glory, Zwick once again tells us a tale we did not know before, and puts a face to history. He does a fine job, and made another memorable film here.

3.5 Schmeissers out of 5

Gran Torino

There are great stories, and great characters; the rare times they converge, and you have a classic. Gran Torino has a great character, and a good story; but it just may be a classic. Because Clint has crafted a character we instantly dislike, yet want to spend more and more time with. A character this good can make a minor classic all on his own.

We meet Walt at the funeral of his wife, where he’s smoldering as his grandchildren show up, in football jerseys and bare midriffs. His sons mutter to each other about whose kids will disappoint him more. The stage is set- an irascible old man who no one is good enough for, living alone in “the old neighborhood” where he’s a final holdout who hasn’t sold his house to immigrants. His craggy face is sculpted in a constant sneer; he doesn’t like what he sees. The repast is at his home, where his sons mumble with their wives about whether it’s time for him to sell it, and his pierced granddaughter is eyeing the classic car that gives the film its title, as she sneaks a smoke in the garage.

Naming a movie after a car when it’s not a road movie is an odd choice, but it makes sense. The 1972 Gran Torino is rough, unforgiving relic from a bygone era. Walt treasures his- he helped build it on the Ford assembly line, and keeps it looking brand new in his garage or driveway. We never even see him drive it, or take enjoyment from it. He just sits on his porch with his Lab, Daisy, drinking PBR’s and sneering at the sorry state of disrepair his Asian neighbors keep their homes in. He’s the kind of man who feels great pain at the sight of a patchy lawn. Next door, the family is celebrating the birth of a child. There are two teenagers in the family, a shy, hunched over boy named Thao and a smart and independent girl named Sue.

They are Hmong- the original “boat people” who sided with us in the Vietnam war, and fled here when we retreated. It’s to the film’s credit that they cast unknowns in the parts, let the actors ad-lib in their own language, and portray their customs. Like Walt, we feel like we’re in a foreign country surrounded by them. the infamous “Get off my lawn!” scene, where he aims the M1 Garand he fought with in Korea at some Asian gangbangers ensues when Thao’s cousins begin hassling him to join up with them. They stumble onto his lawn, and he goes outside. When Thao’s family try to thank him for his help, he tells them to get off his lawn too.


The next day they shower him with gifts- flowers and food. He shuns them, but Sue persists. He may call her names, but they seem to connect because she is a polite and courteous person who is sure of herself. She’s not offended or afraid of him. He can’t scare her off. Eventually he makes an unlikely bond with her brother Thao, without giving away too much of the plot. Thao and his family, the upright side, keep banging heads with his criminal cousins. But Walt’s a fixer. He fixes things. Eventually he’s worn down by Sue’s hospitality, and goes to a family party. Good food, free beer, and good company get the better of him. He may call them zips or gooks to their faces, but he doesn’t hate them. It’s apparent that he hates the shabby state of the neighborhood more than anything else.

The n-word is just about the only slur not used in this movie. I was just in a forum discussion about whether Walt is racist or not, which I find beside the point. He’s a misanthrope; he says it plainly that he wants to be left alone, and slurs are an easy way to make that so. As the story unfolds, we don’t get any obvious revelations of why he is the way he is. It’s left to us to piece together. He’s a child of the Depression and a veteran of the forgotten war, the Korean conflict. They didn’t get parades, or monuments, and our troops retreated in shame. The battle was a slaughter, with stacks of Chinese and Korean soldiers used as sandbags.

The local priest sniffs around too- Walt’s wife made him promise to get Walt to give confession, as if she knew the burden he carried. The film eschews the predictable; it is not a revenge tale, and while it is one of redemption, it knows that sometimes we are beyond it. Walt spars verbally with the young pastor, badgers Thao into becoming a man, and faces his own shortcomings- that he never got to know his own sons. The ending is satisfying, but not the one we wanted. Sure, we want to see Dirty Old Man Harry drive around town in his beat-up truck, being a bad-ass and facing down thugs forever. We know he’ll fix the problem with the thugs- but we just don’t know how.

The movie lives and dies on Eastwood’s performance, easily his best in years. Walt is a brick wall; he never blinks, never winks at you. Even his sense of humor is brash. We see him with his barber (Marge’s husband from Fargo) trading insults and ethnic slurs, and telling awful jokes with his drinking buddies. Some have said that the Hmong actors are too amateur, but they felt natural to me. It was a great choice, just as shooting on location in Michigan was. We haven’t seen the gritty streets of Detroit since Four Brothers and 8 Mile. And the story may not be great, but Eastwood knows just what to tell and what to leave us to figure out. He takes a simple story and makes it gripping, and as much as I like his output, I think this is his most enjoyable movie since Unforgiven.

4.5 out of 5 30-06 rounds.

The El Mariachi Trilogy

While I enjoy the revisionist westerns Hollywood’s been pumping out, and even the more standard ones like the enjoyable but overrated 3:10 to Yuma remake, nothing beats a good spaghetti western for me. The Man With No Name. Django. Trinity. And no one’s making them like that anymore, not even Takashi Miike with Sukiyaki Western Django. The closest we’ve gotten is from Robert Rodriguez, when he sprang onto the scene with his $7,000 indie El Mariachi in 1992, and expanded it into a loose trilogy with the over the top Desperado and the more indulgent Once Upon a Time in Mexico. They tell the story of an innocent mariachi who gets caught in the crossfire between two warring drug cartels who mistake him for a killer with a guitar case full of guns, painting a bloody canvas of exuberant excess. He must have had a lot of fun making them, and it’s infectious.
Still one of the best low budget films of recent note, up there with Clerks and Primer, El Mariachi was infamously funded by Rodriguez signing up as a guinea pig for testing a cholesterol drug. Filmed on a budget of $7,000 using locals as actors, a broken wheelchair as a dolly, and guns borrowed from the police department, he still manages to craft an enjoyable and original take on the old tale of mistaken identity. The story begins with an out of work mariachi wandering into town, guitar case in hand; he looks for a job in a local cantina, but in an amusing, sped-up sequence, he finds that his musical tradition has been replaced by a cheap synthesizer. In the meanwhile, a drug lord puts a hit out on his partner Moco who’s running things from jail. The hitmen fail, and Moco is out for revenge, lugging a guitar case full of assorted weaponry.

It’s good fun, is paced well, and the amateur actors feel more natural thanks to subtitles. It wears its low budget as a badge of pride, and Rodriguez shows the buds of his comic, cartoonish style in several scenes. The mariachi has to survive mostly with his wits, sliding across a power line and narrowly missing being hit by a bus, running between two thugs with machine guns so they shoot each other. There’s comic relief too, such as when he sings for his life in the bathtub to an angry barmaid with a knife jabbed at his junk. Rodriguez’s school pal Carlos Gallardo plays the Mariachi, and really fits the part of the innocent but wily man caught up in things beyond his control.
It holds up 16 years later, and feels timeless. Sure, he uses too many gimmicks like a wide-angle lens, but until Primer came out, I couldn’t imagine a film this good made so cheaply. And this was on film, now digital cameras have made it easier for everybody. I saw it in theaters when it got picked up, and watching it again makes me wish more backyard film makers like Rodriguez got their chance.

Desperado is the story continued with a budget of $7 million, still miniscule for an action film, but more fun than most Hollywood blockbusters. With Antonio Banderas as the nameless Mariachi, we meet him again after everyone’s favorite rat-faced weasel Steve Buscemi walks into a bar and tells a tall tale of a mariachi shooting up the place. The cast is full of such cameos; Cheech Marin is the bartender, Quentin Tarantino plays a pickup man. The Mariachi is still seeking revenge, hunting down the thugs of the drug cartel, but now they strike back. Bucho is the new leader, played as a delicious parody of the angry villain by Joaquim de Almeida (Ramon Salazar from “24”). While the villain in the first movie just liked lighting matches on his henchman’s faces, Bucho gets so incensed that he’s almost as fun to watch as Banderas on a shooting spree.

Ridiculous gunplay is the norm here- with a sawed-off scattergun or a pair of pistols hidden up his sleeves, he shoots his way through cantinas and cars full of thugs, in one imaginative set piece after another. He’s not bulletproof though, and ends up being saved by a slinky book shop owner named Carolina played with gusto by Salma Hayek. She patches his wounds and of course gets into trouble with Bucho and his thugs. Another great cameo is by Danny Trejo as a silent, knife-throwing assassin sent to take out el Mariachi. He wears a vest covered with little cross-shaped throwing knives, and steals his scenes with his tattooed, hulking presence.

The final battle comes when Bucho sends his thugs in an armored limo. The Mariachi needs to call in his old buddies, one is Carlos Gallardo, the original Mariachi, with two guitar case gatling guns, and the other with a rocket launcher! Yeah, it’s silly but they have lots of fun playing on the gunslinging guitar hero theme. The sense of humor that pervades the movie is carried perfectly by Banderas, who can swing from being a bad-ass one moment, to a self-effacing comic hero the next. Hayek plays right along with her iconic tough yet sexy Latina, and the pair have great chemistry. Too bad they haven’t worked together that often.

Los Lobos provides the great soundtrack to the rising body count and once again it’s amazing what Rodriguez does on such a small budget. It never has pretentions of grandeur and just wants to be a fun action film, and succeeds on all counts in that respect. Sure, it ends a little abruptly and the storytelling isn’t very polished, but I’d say this is the best of the trilogy. Following the Star Wars rule, the third entry should be a self-indulgent mess.

Thankfully Once Upon a Time in Mexico is not as bad as a Matrix sequel, but it is a sharp turn from the fun-loving light-heartedness of the second film, and that turned many people off. The title is a nod to Sergio Leone’s films; the Man With No Name was a loose trilogy with Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which were all straightforward westerns that reinvented their genre and have a coherent tone throughout. Afterward, Leone wrote his epitaph to the old west with Once Upon a Time in the West, with all new characters and a more artistic eye; Charles Bronson played a man named “Harmonica,” who also sought revenge for a past wrong and carried a musical instrument. The story of his vengeance is woven through a picture of the pioneer west getting shackled by greedy powers and the evil men they hire to do their work.
In Rodriguez’s epic climax, the Mariachi has settled alone in a remote village where old men make fine guitars, and he has retired from gunslinging. He is found by a CIA man named Sands, played by Johnny Depp with the usual quirky panache. He wants el Mariachi to take out a general who’s planning a coup- after he does it. He knows he’ll take the job… because General Marquez is the man who lusted after, and killed, his wife Carolina. So some time has passed since we left them; we get to see a wonderful tall tale of Mariachi & Carolina’s exploits as told by … Cheech Marin, this time as an eye patch wearing Mexican twin of Ben Franklin.

Therein lies the problem with the story; it begins as a downer, and doesn’t get much better. We get some exciting flashback scenes that recall Desperado‘s sense of fun, such as the gun-slinging couple escaping the General by swinging down a series of windows, fire escapes and flagpoles while shackled together by the wrist. But they are all too fleeting. The labyrinthine plot centers on many characters, not just Johnny Depp’s amusing if somewhat out of place wacky CIA guy. There’s also Willem Dafoe as Barillo, an immensely powerful drug lord; Eva Mendes as a sexy and tricky Mexican Federale, Ruben Blades as a retired FBI agent whose partner was murdered by Barillo, the new reformist President and his staff, and Mickey Rourke as a colorful chiahuahua-toting, purple-suited henchman who wants out. It’s an entire season of “24” jammed into 100 minutes, giving us little quality time with el Mariachi and his guns.

And yes, there are two more gunslinger mariachi pals this time, a drunk and Enrique Iglesias, both of whom are meant as comic relief but are ultimately forgettable. Rodriguez aimed for the stars with this one, and the ensemble cast makes for much of the enjoyment. Danny Trejo is back as a vicious enforcer, and there’s an amusing battle on motorbikes through a market and a cactus field, but this story is more about colorful characters and the peculiarities of Mexican politics than the free-spirited action of the first two. That doesn’t make it a bad movie, but it’s a definite twist on the story, and I think it may have needed epic length to better handle all the characters, plotlines, and betrayals it contains.

The movie has its share of fun and disturbing imagery, sometimes combined; Depp’s comeuppance is particularly memorable, and the mariachis have even more destructive goodies in their guitar cases this time. Part of it is a fantasy that has the people rising up against the evils of the drug cartels and corrupt military that have choked Mexico for centuries, but that’s something deserving of a longer storyline that isn’t as confusing as this one. I was never bored, but I didn’t care much about what happened, either. I wanted more of the Hayek-Banderas chemistry that the beginning teased us with, but it’s a fitting capper to the El Mariachi tale.

Rodriguez has since gone on to direct successful kid movies like the Spy Kids trilogy, gorefests like From Dusk Till Dawn and Planet Terror with pal Quentin Tarantino, and probably his biggest hit, the super-stylized adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City. Right now he has two sequels to Sin City in the pipe and another kid movie called Shorts; I hope someday he returns to making movies in his mythical spaghetti western-style Mexico, with guitar cases full of guns and other excesses. El Mariachi’s story may have been told, but there’s more tales in Mexico than his and the vampires at the Titty Twister!