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The Mexican

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Mexican

Starring: Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts
Director: Gore Verbinski
Rated: R
RunTime: 123 Minutes
Release Date: March 2001
Genres: Action, Romance, Suspense

*Also starring: James Gandolfini, Bob Balaban, J.K. Simmons, David Krumholtz, Sherman Augustus, Richard Coca, Michael Cerveris

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Every tour book in the Barnes and Noble travel section insists that the country covered between its page is the real find, but truth-to-tell, Mexico is the quintessential destination for its variety of landscapes. That exotic and erotic place has mountains, jungles, cosmopolitan cities, Mayan ruins, beaches, quaint villages, an ethnic cornupcopia, a cuisine that has risen to enormous popularity in the U.S., and wondrous animals--appealing to college kids on spring break, middle-aged romantics, retireds looking for a cheap, sunny place to spend their golden years, and more. The Mexico that director Gore Verbinski ("Mouse Hunt") chooses to capture is off the beaten track except to those with a genuine interest in history, the village of Real de Catorce in the north central region of San Luis Potosi. By contrasting the earthy brown shades of this former silver mining town) with the gaudy neon of Las Vegas and the commercial look of all areas photographed in the the environs of that gambling mecca, lenser Dariusz Wolski creates for the armchair moviegoer the stark contrast that hits travelers from highly-developed U.S. cities when they cross the border and proceed south. The divergence between the two cultures is a significant aspect of the movie appropriately entitled "The Mexican," mirroring the dissimilarities between its two principal characters, Jerry (Brad Pitt) and Samantha (Julia Roberts).

The key question raised by this contemporary, off-beat, romantic Western (the best way to label its genre) is: When two people love each other but can't get it together, when do they call it quits? The lovers in this story are two of Hollywood's most appealing performers, a box office draw that should bring truckloads of the 20-40-year-olds to the theaters. Whether that particular audience will like what they see will depend on their appreciation for subtleties that were absent from predictable recent Hollywood fare like "What Woman Want" and the even more embarrassing "Miss Congeniality." In his original screenplay, J.H. Wyman puts twists and surprises into the two-hour picture that will keep you off balance, though one particular curve involving the character of a hit man, Leroy (played by "Soprano" star James Gandolfini) would have drawn titters a couple of decades ago but which seems pretty cornball today.

Driven by character and plot in equal measures, "The Mexican" is framed by a gorgeous couple, Jerry Welbach and Samantha Barzel, who appear in the opening and closing scenes but ply their separate lives during its extended imddle section. Jerry and Samantha are engaged but Sam has made clear that the espousal is off if Jerry insists on going on yet another underworld job. When he is given a choice by gangland big-shot Nayman (Bob Balaban)--who is working for the currently incarcerated big boss Arnold Margoles (played by a surprise uncredited actor)--of flying to Mexico to retrieve a priceless antique gun which is named The Mexican or of sitting in the trunk of a car while Nayman blows it up, he chooses survival over his girl friend and takes off for the cobblestone streets near the Toluca airport. Easily securing the pistol from Margoles's grandson, Beck (David Krumholtz), he finds his troubles only beginning: to insure the delivery of the pistol, Leroy has seized his ex-fiance. Leroy is a hit man whose real identity is unexpected one and whose personal life is not what you'd anticipate from someone in his profession.

Verbinski seems to have good time both sending up and paying homage to Sam Peckinpah, who was himself an undisciplined macho youth known for love poems to the American West such as "Ride the High Country" and massively bloody violent horse operas like "The Wild Bunch." Portraying the Mexicans in broad caricature, Verbinski hones in at one point on such local scenery as the tough bartender who issues the obvious, golden haired gringo a bottle of tequila for twenty bucks and then silently demands a tip for leading him to the guy who holds the valuable revolver. In a tribute as well to the early days of cinema, Verbinski from time to time stops the flow of the story to flash back to a 19th Century scene transmitted with a photographic bleach-out technique involving various interpretations to the legend of the gun, on which a curse has been placed by a disappointed suitor whose troth has been handed instead to the town nobleman.

Julia Roberts turns out the typical role that has reliably drawn crowds time after time. As in "Erin Brockovich," her emotions are perpetually on her sleeve as she flashes her eyes, rants and raves against a man she cannot stop loving but whom she considers too selfish to share a down-to-earth relationship, and acts in a particularly seductive way to the hit man who uncharacteristically reveals secrets about a deficiency of luck in his own love life. The revelations made by Leroy and the actions taken by this assassin on the advice of his hostage give this Western its claim to uniqueness within the genre. The chemistry between two of Hollywood's most attractive personalities is as solid as what you might feel from the posters advertising the movie. Pitt and Roberts appear genuinely to like each other and convincing in communicating the difficulties they face that keep them emotionally apart. In a way "The Mexican" reminded me of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's long-running off-Broadway play "The Fantasticks"--which had a disastrous transfer by Michael Ritchie to the screen last year--in which the smoke- and-mirrors trip that one Luisa receives from a Spanish bandit named El Gallo teaches her that the world outside is not so nice, allowing her to see her lover Matt as a true hero and not as the loser she sometimes considered him to be. Brad Pitt scores in a role that pits him (as well as James Gandolfini) against type as a loser who until the conclusion of the tale has been unable to succeed in his job or in his love life. For all its comedy, though, "The Mexican" is not the usual, slick Hollywood movie you might have expected but off-beat, often surprising, and even demanding.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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