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In his slick, smart grifter tale Matchstick Men, Ridley Scott puts his faith in finesse. Initially employing a jumpy camera and staccato cuts to emphasize the neuroses of Nicolas Cage’s obsessive-compulsive swindler, Scott eventually eases up and gets out of the actor’s way. More important, he trusts Cage not to slip into Snake Eyes-esque scenery-chewing.

Cage rises to the occasion and pulls off a relatively reined-in performance as Roy, a seasoned con man whose self-assuredness comes literally in limited doses, whenever pills are handy to control his tics and panics. As someone whose mental well-being depends on order and control, Roy runs risks in the jobs he pulls that are greater than not just sealing the deal: A carelessly open door, for example, letting sunshine and dirty air pour into a mark’s home, reduces him to a hyperventilating puddle. Cocky partner Frank (Sam Rockwell), Roy’s younger apprentice, thus also serves as his baby sitter, reminding Roy to take his medication and dragging him out of his home during demon-induced fits of isolation.

When Roy accidentally spills his meds down a garbage disposal and discovers that his doctor has skipped town, Frank recommends a new psychiatrist, who is not content just to push pills but insists that Roy participate in therapy. During these sessions, Roy is persuaded to look up his ex-wife, who was pregnant when she left him. Soon he’s wrapping his mind around the fact of his 14-year-old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), and has less time to obsess over carpet lint.

There are few missteps in this polished production. Matchstick Men’s stylized opening credits and Bobby Darin- and Frank Sinatra-laced soundtrack immediately call to mind another recent meditation on the con artiste, Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. Scott also borrowed the clean, well-lit look of that Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle. The script, based on Eric Garcia’s novel and adapted by Ocean’s Eleven writer Ted Griffin and his brother Nicholas, adopts that movie’s Rat Pack-cool tone. Even the tender moments, such as the astonished look on Roy’s face as he watches Angela walk away after their first meeting, or the way he plays her answering-machine message over and over, succeed in being subtly heartbreaking rather than cloying—a leaps-and-bounds improvement over Cage’s gee-kids-are-great turn in The Family Man. And the cons, even though most take place over the phone—Frank and Roy’s specialty is selling heavily marked-up water-filtration systems with promises of prizes—are smartly written and fun to watch, in particular a moment when Frank gets distracted during a pitch, slipping from slick to tripped-up, stammering, “Um, you waited too long. No prize for you!” and hanging up.

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Roy’s symptoms (mainly the tics) ebb and flow along with his circumstances, and because his subtler behaviors—such as opening and closing doors three times, every time—remain consistent, these modifications are believable. Cage also largely limits his character’s weirdness to his face, allowing his eyes to show his instability as much as his speech or gestures. His restraint leaves room for Matchstick Men’s other characters to impress: Rockwell lends a natural charm to Frank, keeping likable a guy who offers Roy friendship with an eye roll, who’s kind enough to go out of his way to make sure Roy is OK but doesn’t hesitate to, say, brush his buddy’s telephone against his own ass when asked to wipe off the receiver. Lohman, with her waifish figure and bright-eyed expression, pulls off a character 10 years her junior: Whenever Angela starts seeming a little too knowing for her age, Lohman snaps her right back, bouncing around with childlike glee, for instance, when Roy agrees to teach her some cons. And the movie’s final twist turns out to be a bit of sleight-of-hand, an ending that’s bittersweet rather than tidy.

For all its style, Matchstick Men is rarely flashy. Scott just may have been convinced to set aside his bag of tricks for the director-who-wasn’t-there approach by the script: When Angela, mulling her mother’s judgment and Roy’s profession, tells him, “You don’t look like a bad guy,” Roy’s ready reply is: “That’s what makes me good at it.”

All budget and no story, meanwhile, make Robert Rodriguez a dull auteur. The Mexican-American filmmaker who boasts that he not only writes but “shoots, chops, and scores” his movies famously made his gritty debut, the critically lauded El Mariachi, with $7,000 and a simple yet gripping tale of mistaken identity. Though its follow-up, Desperado, was noticeably amped up in terms of star wattage and effects, Rodriguez knew how to keep it entertaining: With cool music, the hot Antonio Banderas, and a playful vibe helped by placing Steve Buscemi and Quentin Tarantino in minor roles, Desperado sweated style and a gleeful love of movies underneath the Mexican sun. Even when Rodriguez played to the junior set with his Spy Kids series, he did it with verve and an intelligence rarely found in kid flicks.

Rodriguez’s third installment in the Mariachi series, however, falls disappointingly short of the high standards he’s set for himself. Banderas returns as the unnamed guitarist-cum-gunslinger. (“They call him ‘El,’” one character whispers. “That means ‘The.’”) And though it seems as if Salma Hayek might be back as well, with an early reference made to El’s love interest as being someone “as deadly as she is beautiful”—and an ad campaign showcasing the curvy mamacita—it turns out she’s glimpsed only in slow-motion flashbacks. (You know what that means.) Joining the silkily coiffed Banderas are Johnny Depp as CIA Agent Sands, Willem Dafoe as drug lord Barillo, and 2 Fast 2 Furious’s Eva Mendes as disappointing replacement eye candy.

And what’s El Mariachi up to this time around? Well, looking sexy and contemplative, mostly. On the side, Mr. Mariachi is tasked with preventing Barillo from killing the president, but in fact El is no longer the focus of the story. The suave Latin vigilante shares the screen with a posse of minor characters whose allegiances are often unclear—effectively stopping what ought to be a classic good-guy-vs.-bad-guy arc cold. Sands is nearly as prominent a presence as El and is the unsteady source of the film’s humor, which is largely absent save for the occasionally playful line (“Are you a Mexican, or a Mexi-can’t?”) or mild slapstick (Sands trying to function while blinded). The role, however, lacks definition. Even Depp, usually skilled at making roles pop, can’t save the mess: His character’s schtick is to order the same pork platter at every restaurant, occasionally killing the cook if it’s too good, to make some kind of point—which is about as clear as the rest of the plot.

Rodriguez’s movies have always been bloody, but the violence in Once Upon a Time feels alternately rote (Rodriguez brags that he shot the movie in only seven weeks) and unnecessarily ferocious, with grisly injuries, bodies flying through the air with unnatural force, and over-the-top shootouts from beginning to end. Except for a mildly thrilling take of El sliding down a staircase banister to wipe out a baddie, the nearly balletic style of Rodriguez’s earlier action sequences is missing. Perhaps the director might want to consider excising the word “chops” from his credits. CP