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DVD Review: Once Upon a Time in Mexico/Crime Story

By Glenn Abel

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photo Robert Rodriguez's film school is back in session. Tuition, about 29 bucks. Class duration: 10 minutes. Where and when: "Once Upon a Time in Mexico."

The Texas director made his name in the early '90s, digging the 16mm action flick "El Mariachi" out of border town dust. Rodriguez spent more time explaining how he made the film for $7,000 than he did promoting it for Columbia.

These days, Rodriguez plays in the bigs, of course -- his hits include the "Spy Kids" trilogy and two splashy, comically violent "Mariachi" sequels -- but he's never tired of spreading the gospel of economical, common-sense filmmaking. Need an inferno on the cheap? Here's a guy who literally knows the meaning of bang for the buck.

Rodriguez loves the DVD medium. His latest discs offer "10 Minute Film Schools" for viewers who just want the big picture. For the film savvy, there are detail-packed commentaries and no-bs bonus features. People who dig deep into the extras don't just want to hear about the production, he figures, they want to get out and make their own movies. You get the feeling he'd be hurt if they didn't.

On his latest DVD, "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," Rodriguez gives a tour of the editing and recording facilities behind his house in Austin, Texas. "Home is where the dreams are," he says, surrounded by electronic toys. "I got in it for the fun -- started that way, hope to finish that way."

The good times weren't rolling for the director back in 2001, when he'd tired of the "fat and stagnant" process of making studio films. An actors strike loomed, and he was in the mood for a fast-and-furious project -- "like going back to the old days of 'El Mariachi.' " Amy Pascal at Columbia had been thinking just that -- she wanted a third in the series about a vengeance-seeking guitarist (Antonio Banderas) who specializes in ballads and body counts.

Rodriguez lined up Banderas and Johnny Depp for the project, which rolled onto location in Mexico so quickly that their characters' weapons hadn't cleared customs until Week 2 of the shoot. "Mexico" was shot on the run, with the versatile and forgiving high-definition videotape cameras that Rodriguez had experimented with on the first "Spy Kids."

Rodriguez devotes much of his commentary on "Mexico" to talking up HD, which he says allows directors to work "at the speed of thought." He has no interest in returning to the "crude technology" of celluloid. "The only reason you would shoot film is for nostalgic reasons." He reels off the advantages in a separate 13-minute speech called "Film Is Dead."

"Once Upon a Time in Mexico" looks great on DVD, the images almost ... film-like. The Dolby Digital audio packs plenty of firepower, with percussive lows and frantic soundstages front and rear.

Deleted scenes include a mano-a-mano with Mickey Rourke and Danny Trejo. Rodriguez says he'll finish good scenes just for DVD -- who wants to watch work prints? In the "10 Minute Cooking School," he cooks up the pork dish that so obsesses Depp's loopy CIA agent in the film.

Part-time composer Rodriguez does a second commentary in which he isolates the score and sound effects. His makeup effects pals at KNB FX break down some of the film's main gags in a 19-minute docu. A making-of featurette tells the history of the Mariachi films (this is actually the fourth film; the third just ... never happened).

Columbia, unfortunately, begins this otherwise classy DVD with ads for upcoming films that have to be watched or bypassed each time the disc is inserted.


Michael Mann's compelling "Crime Story" was the producer-director's 1986 follow-up to "Miami Vice." Set in pre-Miranda 1963, the NBC show followed Lt. Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) as he led a major-crimes unit specializing in making the Windy City too hot for hip gangster Ray Luca (Anthony Denison).

The five CD set (retail $59.98) from Anchor Bay covers the show's 21-episode first season. It stretches from the sizzling pilot directed by Abel Ferrara to the ridiculous season finale. (In a bizarre case of a TV show committing suicide, the producers killed off key characters because they mistakenly believed the series had been canceled.) Talent is top-notch, from the writers to the supporting cast to the music men (Al Kooper and Todd Rundgren). Guest stars included Julia Roberts, Pam Grier, Ving Rhames, Gary Sinise, Vincent Gallo, David Caruso, Ray Sharkey and Miles Davis.

The "Crime Story" saga is told in a booklet; there are no extras. Audio and video are OK; cultists will note some subs in the music.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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