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The Mexican Review

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Working off a debt to low-rent mobsters, mishap-prone Jerry is dispatched to Mexico to recover a beautiful but cursed pistol. This is the final straw for his long-suffering girlfriend Samantha, who leaves him and heads for Vegas, but when Jerry's task becomes ever more complicated, the mob decide to take out some insurance and send notorious hit man Leroy to kidnap Samantha.

★★★★★

There's an old Hollywood adage: never work with animals or movie stars. After extracting a remarkable performance out of a trained rodent in Mouse Hunt, sophomore director Gore Verbinski continues to make life difficult by saddling his $15 million indie film with not one, but two marquee players: Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt.

As a small movie, full of ideas, boasting a surfeit of plot and an ambitious mis-match of genres, The Mexican would be worthy of the attention it would doubtless have failed to attract. Cast Janeane Garofalo and Steve Zahn and you've got a cult favourite, maybe. However, as it stands, with both Roberts and Pitt to be applauded for swallowing a big salary cut for material they believed in, the stakes are higher and the critical angle changes. After all, what the Heat-reading, multiplex masses want to know is simple: do the stellar pair create enough chemistry to give Jennifer Aniston sleepless nights?

Mrs. Pitt could rest easy; the plot contrived to keep the screen couple apart for 80 per cent of the action. More importantly, during their rare scenes together, Pitt and Roberts never let the audience forget they are movie stars, not slumming exactly, but certainly with full licence to indulge themselves. Thus we are treated to unusually mannered performing, any chemistry frittered away on facial tics and hissy fits.

Both are better when apart. Pitt manfully shoulders most of the movie's more pointless quirks - hey, it's Brad on a donkey! - but likeable loser Jerry remains charming and oafish when squirming with the heavies who have him by the balls.

Better yet is the Gandolfini-Roberts story thread. The former, who knows how to hold a camera without mugging, brings out the very best in Roberts; rather than compete with him she is a perfectly sweet foil, slowly teasing out the hidden depths in the hit man who has kidnapped her. Indeed, for all the pre-release Brad and Julia hype, it is Gandolfini, in his first major movie role since his Emmy-winning performance as Tony Soprano, who deserves all the plaudits. Unlike Pitt and Roberts, you never once see him acting.

Strangely, in a film about a mis-firing pistol, Gandolfini is the lone straight shooter, and whenever he is on screen Verbinski calls off the hunt for laughs and lets the drama develop naturally.

The Mexican would love to be Out Of Sight, but where Soderbergh's hip thriller was pure jazz, effortless and fluid, too often this dissolves into dissonant percussion: in equal parts slack and forced. That's not to say there's not a lot of good stuff here, but you have to excavate harder than one would like. Somewhere inside this bloated star vehicle is an off-beat road movie trying to get out.

A patchy genre piece that swells the ranks of sub-Tarantino thrillers.

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