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Movie Reviews

The Mexican  

Brad Pitt...............Jerry Welbach
Julia Roberts...........Samantha Barzel
James Gandolfini........Leroy (Winston)
David Krumholtz.........Beck
Luis Felipe Tovar.......Luis

Directed by: Gore Verbinski

Written by: J.H. Wyman

Rated R for violence and language

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A fairly well-known internet critic wrote a scathing review of "The Mexican," dismembering it limb from cinematic limb. At the outset of the review was the sentence "Expectations are a terrible thing," apparently written without the realization that lines of the sort are a true credibility-killer for critics.

Of course, we all have expectations. I'm not saying one should lower their expectations in order to get the most from a particular film. But it is possible for a movie to not fulfill one's expectations and still be a very effective film-going experience. "The Mexican" is a movie like that. The film stars Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, two of the biggest names on the market today. As some may already know, they don't share many scenes together. But the movie works anyway. Why? Simply because it's intelligent, witty, off-beat, and contains some marvelous performances. It just happens to have two of the biggest names in Hollywood headlining the cast. Seems a bit unfair to hold that against the film, does it not?

Pitt and Roberts play Jerry Welbach and Samantha Barzel, a young couple whose future happiness is put on hold until Jerry can finish one more job for a crime kingpin currently jailed but soon to be released. We learn that through an unusual twist-of-fate, Jerry found himself indebted to the crime boss. (A freak automobile collision between the two men ultimately sent said boss to prison.) Upon hearing the news that their future in Las Vegas will have to be delayed because of this final job, Samantha becomes furious and leaves for Vegas without him.

Jerry's assignment is to travel south of the border into Mexico and retrieve a legendary gun known as "The Mexican." The antique weapon is said to be linked to a curse that encumbers anyone whose hands grasp its ivory handle. Throughout his journey, Jerry is told various accounts of the curse's origin. But the variegated accounts aren't quite as foreboding as the disasterous effect the curse has on Jerry himself. His car is stolen, his passport is lost, and more and more shady characters slither out from the woodwork, all eager to possess the mysterious antique.

Meanwhile, Samantha has been kidnapped by an ominous henchman known primarily by his reputation alone. His name is Leroy (James Gandolfini) and he has apparently been sent by the crime boss as a kind of insurance policy; a means of making sure Jerry completes the task before him. While Leroy's presence is forbidding at first, his tough demeanor is soon melted by the plucky and inquisitive Sam. After a short while, they are actually able to come clean regarding their deepest insecurities in the way they approach romantic relationships. Not the kind of development one would expect from a hostage situation.

Unexpected developments are at the core of what makes "The Mexican" a fun movie. Naturally, I had a sense of where the story would eventually wind up, although I wasn't sure how it would get there. Writer J.H. Wyman puts his characters through some rather unusual situations yet is wise enough to give each individual an added dimension - allowing those involved to think their way out of the mess facing them. The circumstances surrounding Jerry and Samantha are certainly unorthodox, but their reactions to it are equally unorthodox, resulting in a story not marred by heavy-plotting or laborious developments.

Director Gore Verbinski ("Mousehunt") handles the movie with a very smooth touch, realizing the story's need to be completely divested of narrative rigidity. A film like this needs to maintain a kind of ebb-and-flow tempo, and Verbinski leaves just enough room for this to happen by giving the actors free reign to create some quirky, intense, emotional, curious, and thoughtful characters.

Brad Pitt plays Jerry as a lovable lummox living his life like someone trying to navigate a maze in total darkness; bumping into wall-after-wall yet methodically making his way through it. He's not the sharpest of tacks and his life isn't blessed with lucidity, but he's a good soul who desperately wants a happy life with his one true love. I can't think of too many other actors who could pull off the "aw, shucks" persona of Jerry Welbach as endearingly as Pitt does. Upon first glance, the role of Samantha seems like the most thankless one. An early scene where she unloads a gamut of verbal bullets at Jerry from atop a balcony feels a little familiar. But Julia Roberts injects her character with a sizeable degree of intelligence and sensitivity. She knows Jerry so well, in a manner that he will never comprehend. That very knowledge is the fuel that ignites her insanity and solidifies her own incredulity as to why she actually loves this guy. But love him she does, and hopeful she continues to be. The most interesting character is Leroy, the henchman with a clever mind, a quick wit, and a heavy heart that he eventually lightens by granting Samantha permission to understand his emotional demons. James Gandolfini (HBO's "The Sopranos") is a marvelous character actor who has made a career out of playing tough guys and plays one again here, yet one with secrets beneath the surface that are slowly peeled away, revealing a surprising amount of depth.

I suppose for some, expectations are indeed a terrible thing. At least if they serve as a blockade toward one's appreciation of something that may not fit the exact mold of said expectation. The main virtue of a movie like "The Mexican" is the fact that it doesn't fit a particular mold; the fact that it takes pride in being quirky and unusual; and the fact that it makes no apologies in doing so.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney

Reviewed by Michael Brendan
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