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The Mexican

  the mexican
Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts discuss combining their salaries so they can purchase a third-world nation.

2001, Dreamworks
All Rights Reserved

Romantic comedies hinge on the chemistry between their stars, so you can't fault me for expecting the linchpin of "The Mexican" (IMDb listing) to be the spark between Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. It turns out my linchpin never materializes — in fact, it's absence appears intentional.

Those expecting a witty romantic romp with two of Hollywood's biggest stars will be sorely disappointed, yet the lack of shared screen time between Pitt and Roberts actually benefits the "The Mexican" — perhaps even saves it. Because the stars are separated for much of the film, both are given the requisite "star" shots and "star" dialogue. The film hinges on how well each star molds their particular part. They're a bi-coastal tandem that can't be judged as a unit because they rarely are a unit.

The duo separates early on when Pitt's character, Jerry Welbach, an inept Mafia bag man, is sent to Mexico to retrieve an antique pistol known as The Mexican. The job will be Jerry's last (of course), and once he successfully retrieves the gun he'll be free to marry his girlfriend Samantha (Roberts) and leave his criminal life behind. The hitch is that his last job, which he screwed up, was supposed to be his final assignment, and Samantha is none too pleased when her bumbling boyfriend explains that he's not quite finished. Samantha issues an ultimatum: If Jerry goes to Mexico, they're finished. Jerry, however, is swayed by a stronger ultimatum from his employers: Jerry goes to Mexico or he dies.

To make things interesting, and keep Jerry loyal, his Mafia bosses send a hit man (James Gandolfini) to kidnap Samantha and hold her as collateral in case anything "funky" happens. At this point the plot splits into divergent storylines — Jerry in Mexico, Samantha and the hit man in Las Vegas — that eventually merge in the climax. Dubious characters of questionable allegiance zip in and out of both plotlines, acting as temporary obstacles that provide comedic and violent tangents.

Pitt's performance is an excellent portrayal of Brad Pitt vacationing in Mexico. Like Will Smith, Pitt earns his paycheck by often playing himself (or an amped version of himself), and that's the case with this role. As is his custom, Pitt forgoes vocal emphasis, punching important words and phrases by waving and wagging and contorting his appendages. It's as though the air itself has pissed him off. This act worked in "12 Monkeys" when Pitt played a raving loony, but in "The Mexican" it's misplaced. Yet it's not misplaced to the point of annoyance because Pitt offsets his arm acrobatics with a genuine flair for comedy.

Roberts, excuse me, Oscar nominee Julia Roberts, fares better than Pitt. Director Gore Verbinski ("Mouse Hunt") gives her plenty of close-ups, particularly when she's smiling. Roberts smiles so much, and it works so damn well, her mouth deserves a credit unto itself. Performance-wise, Roberts is passable, especially when compared to Pitt's arm antics. As Samantha she's a ball of nerves and self-help confusion, sputtering relationship buzzwords like "blame shift" and "time out" whenever she's flustered. Many times Roberts pushes a little too hard, playing Samantha like a wayward cast member from "Friends." Fortunately, most of her scenes are opposite James Gandolfini, whose composure is an elixir for Roberts' fanaticism.

"The Mexican" is Gandolfini's first major film role since his "Sopranos" success and on the surface it looks like Gandolfini is plucking Tony Soprano from the TV world and dropping him in this film. But 10 minutes after his introduction his character takes an unexpected turn, and by the third act Gandolfini is a far cry from his TV alter ego. It doesn't immediately register, but Gandolfini's tempered presence is the film's biggest asset.

I expect a cutesy reviewer will cave to the temptation to characterize Gandolfini's character as a "teddy bear," or worse, "a loveable teddy bear." While his snuggly nature is certainly revealed, be warned that his performance is better described as a "vengeful teddy bear" or a "teddy bear with a silencer."

The violence sprinkled throughout this film is disarming because the camera work and soundtrack foster a lighthearted atmosphere. "The Mexican" doesn't toy with expectations to the degree of "Nurse Betty," but it has no problem with splatter patterns and live ammunition. The film is filled with criminals and killers, so the violence is justified, but Verbinski neglects to drop hints of morality against the gunplay and that challenges the likability of the characters.

Violence is the most obvious excess, but it's part of a grander inefficiency. Verbinski could have tightened the story (and saved a few hundred thousand bucks) by eliminating two unnecessary highway scenes and cutting Pitt's Mexico hijinks. The director also falls into the too-many-characters trap: We're supposed to remember the myriad supporting players by name as well as face. Visually cataloguing "The Mexican's" characters is easy enough, but you'll need a crib sheet to recall the different names, especially as they ping off your brain stem in rapid-fire dialogue.

Most excessive are the final 15 minutes, which is more of a coda than an ending. Instead of wrapping at its natural point — a point you can sense — the film trudges on, sacrificing energy for a cameo from Gene Hackman. Hackman is a pleasant surprise, but these last minutes suck the sizzle out of a film that maintains decent wattage for most of its running time.

Filmfodder Grade: B-

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