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'The Mexican': A Tasty Combo Plate

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2001


    'The Mexican' Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts star in "The Mexican." (DreamWorks)
America's love affair with violence has seldom been so quirkily examined as in "The Mexican," an offbeat crime caper with Sam Peckinpah's prints all over it. The tale, symbolically enough, turns on the search for an antique pistol with a cupid-shaped hammer that slams into an engraving of a bosomy heart.

According to legend, anyone who ever fired the weapon died of a broken heart or cardiac arrest. Now a hapless bagman (Brad Pitt) and his temperamental girlfriend (Julia Roberts) seem fated to give it a shot. Never mind that they must take different paths to arrive at the same destination.

"The Mexican," you see, is actually two road movies: his and hers. The tempestuous twosome are separated early in the story, but they are so clearly crazy for each other that the passion lasts all movie long. They remain foremost in one another's thoughts, which both are inclined to share with anyone who will listen.

Roberts's Samantha finds a sympathetic ear in James Gandolfini as Leroy, a conflicted hit man hired to snatch Samantha and hold her hostage till Jerry (Pitt) returns from Mexico with the much-coveted pistol. Samantha, who has had it up to her exposed bellybutton with Jerry's Mafia ties, is headed for Vegas to become a croupier when nabbed by Leroy. She protests, to no avail, that she just broke up with Jerry.

Which she did in a scene familiar from countless romantic comedies: She throws him out, followed by his suitcase. But the segment is keenly written by J.H. Wyman, and the actors play it with such relish – make that hot sauce – that the scene comes off as zesty, if not quite original.

As she psychobabbles to Leroy: The problem is Jerry never has time for her. Here, he promised to take her to Sin City and they were in couples therapy and he didn't learn a thing. So it was hasta la vista, Jerry, although she just can't seem to wash that man out of her big hair. Leroy, one of the newfangled, sensitive hoodlums, has trouble with relationships himself and understands Samantha's frustrations too well. Soon he's staring into her picture-window eyes and confessing his innermost longings.

Meanwhile, south of the border, Jerry has also discovered a new best friend in a slobbering junkyard dog who refuses to leave the bed of Jerry's hurriedly purchased used truck. Jerry is also a lovable bad guy, yet unlike the sharpshooting Leroy, he rarely finds his target. But make no mistake, blood is spilled as the goofy gringo repeatedly loses and recovers the precious weapon.

Pitt, scruffy though blessedly unbattered, is on leave from his bare-fisted persona. On the other hand, he's still playing the rogue and, despite the high jinks, remains preoccupied with violence here. Like many of his recent films, "The Mexican" would be an independent movie if Pitt, not to mention the queen of popcorn cinema, weren't part of the picture. This is not your typical star vehicle.

Both he and Roberts, scrappy, even a bit shrewish here, took huge pay cuts to play opposite each other. While they do share togetherness, she spends more time opposite Gandolfini than her leading man. (What the heck: Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks didn't meet till the end of "Sleepless in Seattle.")

Although there are similarities between Gandolfini's Leroy and the capo he plays in HBO's "The Sopranos," he brings more tenderness to this tough-guy role. And like the hoodlums in "Analyze This," "The Whole Nine Yards" and "Nurse Betty," he's depicted heroically and the story's outcome depends on him.

Gore Verbinski, who previously directed the slapstick comedy "Mouse Hunt," successfully balances the action with the romance and the Gothic humor. Although the movie does seem to end on three separate occasions, two of them are too Hollywood for eccentric partners in a low-budget movie. But the whole point of the exercise is to reunite Brad and Julia.

"The Mexican" (123 minutes) is rated R for violence and language.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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