Going South

It has all the firepower that a great movie could ask for, but 'The Mexican' shoots and mostly misses.

March 02, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN FILM CRITIC

"The Mexican" has attitude, megawatt star power and a puckish sense of misdirection (beginning with its title) that delights in throwing its audience off guard.

So why isn't it a better film?

Clearly, the fault lies in its stubborn resistance to having all those elements work together toward a common goal. Its smarmy attitude and off-center sensibility doesn't really befit a romantic comedy, which is what this movie is at its core. Casting superstars Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt doesn't really work in a film that should be more of an ensemble, with no one star outshining the others. And while misdirection keeps audiences on their toes, it also directs their attention away from story and character.

Although it's being promoted as a chance to watch Pitt and Roberts play off one another, and although it opens with them in bed, the pair only share the screen for roughly one-fifth of the film. For within a few minutes of that blissful opening, they're in different countries, with far different ends in mind.

Pitt is Jerry Welbach, a dim-witted, over-adrenalized mob bagman whose head is never really in the business. After a series of foul-ups, his bosses give him one last chance; accomplish this minor task, they assure him, and you can get into a new line of work.

The job sounds simple enough: Go to Mexico and retrieve a valuable antique pistol called "The Mexican" from some guy named Beck, who will be sitting in a bar. But nothing is simple when Jerry's involved; within minutes of getting the gun, a dead body winds up inside his rental car, his rental car is stolen, and Jerry's left in the middle of nowhere with no money, no wheels and no knowledge of Spanish beyond what he learned from Speedy Gonzalez cartoons.

Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Samantha (Roberts), is in Las Vegas, determined to start life anew and become a croupier. She's also determined never to see Jerry again, having decided he's a self-centered egotist who's phobic about commitment (the joke - and it gets old fast - is that she's describing herself, not him).

Almost immediately, however, Samantha runs into a hit man named Leroy (James Gandolfini of "The Sopranos," who steals the film from his more famous co-stars). He's been hired by Jerry's nervous mob bosses to hold her hostage as insurance until the pistol is safely back in their hands.

And so the film's two merry chases begin. Jerry runs all over Mexico trying to track down the Mexican, while Leroy and Samantha head for Los Angeles to await his return. In the meantime, all manner of mayhem unfolds, much involving guns, bullet holes and other carnage.

Even when Roberts and Pitt are on screen together, they generate little chemistry. Their personalities never mesh (it's never clear what the characters see in each other), and neither do their performances.

Far more fun to watch are Gandolfini and Roberts; "The Mexican" comes to life whenever they're together on screen, and slows maddeningly when they aren't. In fact, of all the principals, only Leroy seems to belong in this film, and only Gandolfini seems to have a real feel for what's going on. His character is a lot like Tony Soprano, but with a few key differences that are responsible for some of the film's best scenes.

Pitt, on the other hand, should have reined in his character considerably; Jerry requires somebody like a young James Garner, whose self-deprecating wit would have fit this film perfectly. And Roberts, though charming, never seems quite comfortable as the brassy Samantha.

Director Gore Verbinski ("Mouse Hunt") and screenwriter J.H. Wyman seem to envision "The Mexican" as a screwball comedy written by Quentin Tarantino. Every once in a while, they get it right.

But "The Mexican" is its own worst enemy, consistently undermining its best efforts. The result is an over-long series of quirks, a film that's far less than the sum of its often amusing and ingenious parts. Here's guessing you'll want to like it far more than you will.

`The Mexican'

Starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts

Directed by Gore Verbinski

Released by DreamWorks Pictures

Rated R (violence and vulgar language)

Running time 115 minutes

Sun score: ** 1/2

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