USA 2001 /// director : Gore Verbinski /// script : J H Wyman /// cinematography : Dariusz Wolski /// editing : Craig Wood /// lead actors : Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, James Gandolfini /// 123 minutes

As a comic, violent, quirky, character-based, dialogue-heavy, vaguely Tarantino-ish road movie, mostly set in Mexico, The Mexican has one great thing going for it: it isn’t The Way of the Gun. The title of Christopher McQuarrie’s self-indulgent variation on similar themes could fit both movies: Verbinski’s Mexican isn’t a man, its a priceless antique pistol, which Jerry (Pitt), a klutzy minor-league crook, is despatched south of the border to find and bring back to his boss. To sharpen Jerry’s erratic concentration, his employers hire no-nonsense pro Leroy (Gandolfini) to kidnap his on-off girlfriend, the psychobabble-spouting Sammy (Roberts). At first, all goes well: Jerry locates the pistol without too much hassle, and Sammy makes the best of her hostage situation. But it isn’t too long, of course, before the inevitable movie-ish complications arise.

To go into exactly how things go awry would be to spoil most of the fun of what is, for much of its length, an agreeably freewheeling, unpredictable little movie. Despite the megastar lead couple — who, of course, spend most of the film apart —  this is a relatively low-budget production, with a nice indie feel to the camerawork and the locations: most of the Mexican action unfolds in a particularly photogenic little town, accessed via a spooky road-tunnel hacked through the hills. One of the town’s inhabitants is a fierce but loyal mutt which tags along after Jerry — this doesn’t add anything to the plot, but it chimes just right with the prevailing shaggy-dogness of the whole enterprise.

The tone is larky-deadpan Coenish, without the smart-assness that so often gets in the way of the brothers talents. Gandolfini also appears in their next movie, The Man Who Wasnt There, and at this stage he looks a safe bet to transfer his Sopranos success to the bigger screen. Pitt and Roberts are fine (he contributes some nifty physical clowning, she somehow remains appealing despite her endlessly grating self-help chatter) but the movie only really makes sense while Gandolfini’s in it, effortlessly projecting a charismatic blend of strength and vulnerability.

Perhaps he makes the movie seem better than it really is, because when Leroy exits, The Mexican suddenly starts to unravel. The already over-complex plot becomes almost completely incomprehensible as the picture drags on and on and on, with a last-reel star-cameo that just gets in the way. The picture sprawls, unforgivably, beyond the two-hour mark — all the more frustrating, when this should, and so easily could, have been a snappy, edgy 90-minute blast.

Neil Young
24th April, 2001