The Mexican is a kind of Hollywood bait-and-switch. With its dream-team pairing of box-office heavyweight heartthrobs Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt, it seems to promise a cute romantic comedy, Pretty Woman Meets Pretty Man (an impression shrewdly reinforced by the marketing campaign). What it delivers, though, is an offbeat caper/road-movie type flick that keeps Roberts and Pitt apart for almost all of its overlong running time, during which period it rambles unevenly over some of the same terrain as better films like Raising Arizona, Midnight Run, and Romancing the Stone, accompanied by a Tarantino-esque nostalgic soundtrack incongruously scoring moments of high tension or violence.
The elements are all familiar: a dangerous quest in unknown territory, a clueless foreigner in over his head in hostile surroundings, a tough guy saddled with an unwilling captive/companion who drives him crazy until they begin to bond, supporting characters with unknown allegiances, and, of course, a number of twists and double-reverses.
There’s some freshness here amid the formula, but mainstream audiences are liable to find The Mexican too long and slow, too violent, and too off-putting. A few film aficianados and critics, numbed by the present dismal spate of lousy Hollywood efforts, may hail it as a wonderful find. But only the absence of worthwhile competition — and a highly watchable performance by "The Sopranos"’s James Gandolfini (who gets far more screen time with Roberts than Pitt does) — qualifies this middling effort as a modest success by any standard.
The "Mexican" in the title is, happily, neither Roberts nor Pitt, nor even Gandolfini (Charleton Heston may have gotten away with playing a Mexican in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, but that was fifty years ago). Nor is the film named for any of the actual Mexicans in the story. In fact, the title character isn’t a person at all, but a gun: an ornate, hand-crafted pistol with an enigmatic history shrouded in legend. This legend is revisited in several forms during the film, using sepia-toned footage from a hand-cranked camera to lend an air of antiquity and unreality.
Made a hundred years earlier as a wedding gift for a nobleman, the Mexican features a heart-shaped chamber and decorative relief figures of a man holding a woman, and a snake eating an apple. Described in the production notes as a "lover’s gun" (whatever that is), the pistol simultaneously embodies sex and violence — key themes that are intertwined throughout The Mexican. Even the film’s fatuous advertising blurb ("Love with the safety off") combines romance and firearms, gunplay and foreplay.
Director Gore Verbinski says that his "concept for the pistol is simply that love is worth fighting for." The movie does contain a lot of fighting, mostly shooting (virtually every character in the film shoots a gun, and is shot at, and a number of people are killed); and some of it is motivated by love. Still, none of this can really be described as "fighting for" love, unless you think it is "fighting for love" when, after someone kills your lover, you proceed to kill that person, or yourself.
The Mexican is the film’s McGuffin, the thing everybody is after. Bumbling Jerry (Pitt, displaying real comic talent) is after it because his accidental entanglement with an underworld figure has made him an unwilling mob bagman, and, despite his abyssmal track record, his bosses have decided to entrust him with the task of going to Mexico to retrieve the priceless firearm (good plan, wiseguys). Jerry’s bosses have their reasons for seeking the gun, but there are also others who want it for reasons of their own.
Samantha (Roberts, also funny, but abrasive) is one of the film’s few characters who isn’t after the pistol — yet, because she’s Jerry’s girlfriend, she’s involved whether she wants to be or not. Furious at Jerry for his involvement in yet another mission for the mob, Samantha sets off alone for Las Vegas, where two rival hitmen vie to kidnap her. The survivor (Gandolfini) tells her that his name is Leroy and that he’s taking her as collateral to ensure that Jerry delivers the gun.
Gandolfini has formidable presence and great comic timing, and he just about steals the film. He also has some of the best lines. My favorite moment with him and Sam involves a gas-station ladies’ room, a locked door, and a back window: In a way, I feel as if I’ve been waiting for years for some movie to show me just that scene. And the touchy-feely "girl talk" quality of his exchanges with Sam puts a fresh spin on the familiar device of Stockholm-syndrome bond between captor and captive.
Still, I can’t help wondering: Was the film helped by making Gandolfini’s character a homosexual, and by making such a big deal about his homosexuality? Is the concept of a gay hitman supposed to be intrinsically humorous? Does the fact that he’s gay make his cutesy-poo girl-talk with Sam funnier? Couldn’t he be straight and still be sensitive and touchy-feely — and wouldn’t that arguably be funnier? Finally, are even gay moviegoers likely to appreciate yet another gay character who’s also a cold-blooded killer (and worse)?
Perhaps the thought was that he had to be gay in order to avoid sexual tension with Roberts (who at first wonders if he’s going to rape her, and then, when he shows a distinct lack of interest in the possibility, is offended until she figures out that he’s gay). Yet Roberts’ character is so abrasive that it’s no stretch at all to envision a straight man having no interest in her. (My companion at the movies that evening suggested a different possibility: Perhaps they made him gay because it was too difficult to imagine a straight hitman not simply shooting her after ten minutes.)
In any case, there’s a tiresome, off-putting subplot with the hitman picking up and sleeping with a gay postal worker (Michael Cerveris, exhibiting none of Gandolfini’s charisma), while Roberts looks on with glowing approval. Would she have thought it was so wonderful if he’d been a straight man who’d picked up a woman?
There are two questions The Mexican keeps coming back to: First, if you really love someone, but you just can’t seem to make it work, when do you reach that point where enough is enough? And second, do you like sex and travel? To its credit, the movie knows what is the right answer to the first question — and what is the wrong answer to the second question, which shouldn’t have been asked in the first place. The Mexican is about fidelity, about never giving up on love, about forgiveness and sacrifice. It is also about shooting people.
Theological note: In one version of the legend of the Mexican, a character is presented as nobly committing suicide, "bravely surrendering her soul to purgatory" in the words of another character. The idea of a suicide going to purgatory (and thence to heaven), rather than to hell, is perfectly compatible with Church teaching: Although suicide is gravely wrong, sin is not mortal unless the sinner also has sufficient reflection and full consent, either of which a suicide might easily lack.
However, the film also proposes some nonsense about the suicide’s soul coming to reside in a physical object, until being "set free" at a later point; which is silly superstition at best. Of course, the whole thing is simply something that one character says, so it’s not necessary to attribute these ideas to the film itself. Still, it’s best to be clear about what is actually compatible with Church teaching and what isn’t.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.