Screenplay : J.H. Wyman
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Brad Pitt (Jerry), Julia Roberts (Samantha), James Gandolfini (Leroy), Bob Balaban (Nayman)
Although the majority of Gore Verbinski's crime-comedy The Mexican does take place south of the border, the title of the movie refers to a mystical handgun that sets the plot in the motion. At three separate points in the movie, three different characters explain the gun's mythology, and each time the myth is a little bit different. Each of the various versions involves a poor gunsmith, his daughter whom he wants to marry off to a callous nobleman, and the gunsmith's assistant who is in love with the daughter. These various myths unspool in sepia-toned scenes that are touched by the cranking sound of an old projector, and it isn't until the last version of the myth is told--by a surprisingly unlikely character--that the movie's pieces all come together.
The Mexican is a rare crime movie in that it is also about love. Granted, the movie's romanticism is somewhat comical and far-fetched, but beating beneath is guns-and-blood exterior is a vein of authentic emotion that gives the story an added edge. Much of the romance is played in exaggerated terms, much like Quentin Tarantino's script for the aptly titled True Romance (1993), but you get the feeling that some of the movie's ironic posturing is just that: posturing. It's as if the school bully has fallen in love, but still feels the need to act tough lest the other kids stop being afraid of him.
The romantic couple in The Mexican is Jerry (Brad Pitt) and Samantha (Julia Roberts), although they spend most of the movie separated. Jerry and Samantha have a rocky romance that is characterized by intense passion; unfortunately, that passion veers into fighting at the drop of a hat, and their first scene together involves a shouting match about why Jerry has to go to Mexico when he had promised Samantha that they would go to Las Vegas together. Jerry's matter-of-factness about the dispute (he will be killed by mobsters if he doesn't go) does little to penetrate Samantha's wall of jargon from their "group" sessions ("Are you blame-shifting on me?" she cries at one point).
The reason Jerry must go to Mexico is because, for reasons that become clear later on, he owes a mobster named Margolese and has been working off this debt by running various errands (most of which he manages to botch in one way or another). His final assignment is to retrieve the titular gun, which is supposed to have a curse on it. The veracity of the curse seems more and more likely as everything that can go wrong for Jerry does go wrong once he retrieves the weapon. What was supposed to be a simple, quick trip turns in a complete debacle, starting when the guy Jerry is supposed to meet up with in Mexico is accidentally shot in the head and Jerry's car is stolen with prized gun inside. It's all downhill from there.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, the mobsters hire a professional named Leroy (James Gandolfini) to kidnap Samantha and hold her as insurance to guarantee that Jerry completes the job. It is in the scenes between Samantha and Leroy that the movie works best, as they develop a quirky, unexpected relationship based on their similar experiences in the romance department. Although he has the requisite tough-guy exterior and the stoic demeanor of a professional killer, it turns out that Leroy has a lot of secrets, including an inner softness that Samantha catches on to right away. Yet, she doesn't try to exploit this in order to escape; rather, she becomes genuinely involved with Leroy's problems, and their connection actually transcends the ironic silliness of an overemotional hostage and a hardened hit man discussing romantic entanglements and issues of need.
Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts do well in roles that were originally intended for unknowns (the movie had an initial budget of $10 million back when it was floating around as a script without a distributor). Pitt is allowed to exercise his often under-utilized flair for comedy; despite his "movie star" status, Pitt is quite adept at undermining his own persona through confusion and incompetence. It's not that Jerry is completely unfit for the job, but he is clearly in over his head and knows it.
At first, Roberts' performance is shrill and one-note (although quite funny), and it isn't until she hooks up with Leroy that the warmth that has made her so endearing on the big screen comes through. For his part, James Gandolfini, best known as Tony Soprano from the hit HBO series The Sopranos, gives the movie's best performance. His Leroy is a constant contradiction, and Gandolfini plays him just right, suggesting both strength and vulnerability. Like Pitt's undercutting of his own star persona, Gandolfini has fun playing both to and against the type for which he has become known (his entire career has been built on playing mobsters and hit men).
Director Gore Verbinski, whose only other feature credit is 1998's Mouse Hunt, does a fine job of maintaining the bizarre, comic rhythms of J.H. Wyman's script without letting it sink into complete parody. Verbiniski is a veteran of TV commercials (he directed the first Budweiser talking frogs spot), but unlike so many other TV commercial veterans, he doesn't immediately resort to fast-cut editing and hectic pacing. Surprisingly enough, Verbinski actually demonstrates restraint and posture, letting many of the scenes play out in long takes that emphasize character over action (the success of The Mexican can be interestingly contrasted against the utter failure of 3000 Miles to Graceland, which demonstrates everything that is potentially bad about the ironic crime genre).
The movie does feature its share of action, including at least two unnecessary car chases in which no actual chasing is going on (it is as if someone felt the movie was not complete without screeching tires and a near collision with an eighteen-wheeler). However, most of the story is focused on the characters and their unlikely, yet touching (and comical) connections to one another, and it is this aspect that gives the movie its unique quality.
©2001 James Kendrick