(director: Gore Verbinski; screenwriter: J.H. Wyman; cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski; editor: Craig Wood; cast: Brad Pitt (Jerry Welbach), Julia Roberts (Samantha Barzel), James Gandolfini (Leroy), David Krumholtz (Beck), Gene Hackman (Arnold Margolese-unbilled cameo), Luis Felipe Tovar (Luis), J.K. Simmons (Ted), Bob Balaban (Nayman), Richard Coca (Car Thief), Michael Cerveris (Frank), Sherman Augustus (Black Assassin); Runtime: 123; DreamWorks Picture; 2001)
“Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s location shots of the beautiful mountain town of Real de Catorce were spectacular.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This slight film is nevertheless richly endearing as a comedy-romance-thriller. The on-the-road story can boast of big-time star power in Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts.
The well-crafted story is about a special 19th century pistol called “The Mexican.” The pistol has a rich history attached to it that includes a curse. Screw up gofer, Jerry Welbach (Brad Pitt), is ordered by his milksop crime boss Nayman (Balaban) to bring the pistol back from Mexico, on orders from the big boss — Arnold Margolese (Gene Hackman). He is currently in jail but expects to be released soon. Margolese was captured when Jerry crashed into him in a minor traffic accident, and Jerry has owed the mob favors ever since.
Jerry’s girlfriend Samantha (Julia Roberts) has just told him that if he doesn’t leave LA and go to Las Vegas with her they’re through. She has ambitions of being a croupier, but Jerry deems his life is worth more to him when alive; so he opts to go to the small town in Mexico to bring back the pistol and has been promised if he succeeds this will be his last job for the gang. The quarreling couple, who attend group counseling sessions posing as a married couple, have this intense love-hate relationship where they are all-loving one moment yet in the next moment are arguing over any little thing. Jerry goes to Mexico as his clothes come streaming down to him in the street, thrown by Samantha from their 2nd floor balcony.
The biggest surprise in this offbeat not quite Hollywoodish film, is that Pitt and Roberts will be separated for so long onscreen. They are together briefly only in the first and last reels, but separated for the entire middle part as the camera veers back and forth on their separate adventures in Mexico and Las Vegas. This long separation didn’t disappoint me, but it might disappoint some fans who expected to see a more romantic story develop between the two stars.
Jerry finds the pistol easily enough in the hands of a drunken Beck (David Krumholtz), who quickly turns it over to him. But the villagers in this remote place are celebrating Independence Day, and an accidental shot kills Beck before he can get into the car. While Jerry is distracted someone steals his rental car with all his money, identification cards, and the pistol.
The film cuts back to Samantha driving to Las Vegas and while stopping off in a rest spot a black gunman assaults Samantha in the ladies’ room, but the gunman is shot by another gunman who kidnaps Samantha and tells her his name is Leroy (James Gandolfini, of The Sopranos) and that he is holding her hostage until Jerry returns with the pistol. The chemistry between the soft-spoken but violent thug Leroy and the profane speaking but communicative Samantha is a comic delight, as they share their love woes. Samantha is so proud of herself that she figured out that Leroy is gay. They further bond as they sympathize over their love woes: of him being a loser in the love department, as all his previous lovers left him. He is still surprised that anyone would like him, while she confesses she loves Jerry but can’t answer Leroy’s question about when enough is enough in a love affair if you love the guy. In Vegas Leroy will fall in love with a postal worker (Cerveris) on holiday, and he begins an intense romance that ends tragically.
Meanwhile, back in Mexico, Jerry finds himself looking everywhere for the pistol but he is having difficulty getting around because he can’t speak Spanish. He finally recovers the pistol from the car thief gang then loses it again to a corrupt cop, then gets it back again with help from Ted (J.K. Simmons). He is one of Nayman’s dullish agents whom Jerry considers his best friend in the gang and who talks of retirement soon, thinking like a government worker who has a secure job and will do nothing to mess up his impending retirement plans. He is even willing to follow orders that are distasteful to him. Jerry becomes suspicious of why he is down here when he overhears a conversation between him and Nayman.
After the madcap chase through northern Mexico, the unbilled Gene Hackman appears. He’s the criminal kingpin, Margolese, who explains the true legend of the hand-crafted pistol. It previously had a number of false stories told about it. He also puts an exclamation point on why he wants the pistol and why he asked for a bumbler like Jerry to go on this wild chase. The story got a little out of hand at this point and Hackman does his best to clear things up.
Director Gore Verbinski (Mouse Hunt) does a nice job tightening up this rambling story when it got too messy and he kept the action flowing, though a few of the comedy scenes of Roberts and Pitt arguing seemed contrived.
Brad Pitt is as loose as a goose playing the part of a jerky small time hood with enough smarts to keep alive through his adventures and betrayals. He successfully plays his part strictly for the comedy. Julia Roberts plays a familiar part to her by now, of someone who doesn’t have all her smarts but is likable. She is likable when sticking to her work-type characterization of someone trying to get in touch with her feelings through reading self-help books and having conversations about sensitive topics. Her chemistry is good with Pitt, but is sensational with Gandolfini. They provide the film with its main stimulus of comedy, raunchiness, violence, and good conversation. All these characters were well-defined and screenwriter J.H. Wyman deserves much of the credit for that, as he also embellished the story with excellent dialogue and enough plot twists and surprises to keep crime film buffs guessing at what happens next. While cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s location shots of the beautiful mountain town of Real de Catorce were spectacular.
REVIEWED ON 3/10/2001 GRADE: B