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The Mexican

Quentin Tarantino's work cast a long shadow over the '90s, but filmmakers have recently begun to synthesize his trademarks—chatty hoods, an obsession with the intersections of fate, characters who share their creators' love of storytelling—in new, relatively novel ways. The ambitious but grating Nurse Betty began the process by paring down the macho showiness and gunplay of Tarantino's best-known films and adopting a more sensitive, female-oriented, approach to its characters, and now The Mexican does much the same, albeit to better (if wildly uneven) effect. Produced by frequent Tarantino collaborator Lawrence Bender and directed by Mouse Hunt's Gore Verbinski, the film stars Brad Pitt as a slacker and reluctant small-time hood whose lack of responsibility has endangered his relationship with self-help-minded girlfriend Julia Roberts. Sent to Mexico to pick up the titular pistol, Pitt soon provokes the suspicion of his sinister bosses, who send hitman James Gandolfini to hold Roberts hostage until Pitt returns with the gun. The Mexican gets off to a slow start, with early scenes embodying the aimless, irritatingly self-satisfied tone that made Nurse Betty such a chore. But the film picks up with the arrival of Gandolfini, whose touchy-feely relationship with Roberts feels like a smirky, too-cute construction at first, but gains depth and power as it develops. Gandolfini and Roberts have a wonderfully breezy rapport, and the former's hitman-with-a-heart-of-gold role utilizes the intelligence and vulnerability lurking behind his meathead façade nearly as well as his star-making work in The Sopranos. But whenever Gandolfini is offscreen, The Mexican flails, hampered by slack pacing, a bloated running time, and the flimsiness of Pitt's character. An underrated comic actor, Pitt is stuck carrying the film's weakest scenes, hamstrung by a character who never seems like more than a well-meaning dolt. Pitt and Roberts might be the marquee names, but Gandolfini is The Mexican's heart and soul. It's just too bad the film only occasionally matches the power and intensity of his performance.

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