[Screen It]

(2001) (Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts) (R)

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Comedy/Action: While a mob errand boy tries to retrieve an old and reportedly cursed Mexican pistol, his estranged girlfriend must deal with a hit man who's kidnapped her to ensure safe delivery of the gun.
Jerry Welbach (BRAD PITT) has had better days. Forced to work as an errand boy for the mob after accidentally causing kingpin Arnold Margolese to be sent to jail, Jerry has just been given an ultimatum by Bernie Nayman (BOB BALABAN). Either he travel to Mexico and retrieve a supposedly cursed pistol named "The Mexican" along its current owner, or be killed for screwing up his last assignment.

He naturally chooses the former, but that doesn't sit well with his high-strung girlfriend, Samantha (JULIA ROBERTS), who's upset that his new job will prevent him from going to Las Vegas with her as he had promised. So, as Jerry heads off to Mexico in search of the pistol and Beck (DAVID KRUMHOLTZ), the young man in possession of it, Samantha packs her stuff and heads for Vegas.

On her way, however, not only does she run into one thug (SHERMAN AUGUSTUS) who tries to abduct her, but also another one, Leroy (JAMES GANDOLFINI), who shoots the first and then kidnaps her as insurance that Jerry won't try to do anything funny with the reportedly valuable pistol. Meanwhile, Jerry arrives in San Miguel and finds both Beck and the pistol, but things go terribly wrong from there as some locals steal both the gun and his rental car.

From that point on, Jerry does what he can - eventually with help from Ted (J.K. SIMMONS), his associate - to locate and retrieve the pistol, all while Samantha begins to dig deep into Leroy's personal life, eventually revealing a sensitive person inside the otherwise seemingly cold-blooded killer.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Like their celestial counterparts, Hollywood stars shine the brightest in their universe, drawing the gaze of most everyone within and outside the movie industry, all seemingly without much effort. Fans want their autographs or glimpses of them, the paparazzi want their photos, and magazines, TV shows and newspapers elbow their way through the masses to get their exclusive interviews, stories and photos.

The people with the greatest appetite for such stars, however, are filmmakers and those running the studios who will do most anything to get them to appear in their latest films. After all, while a star's presence doesn't necessarily insure success, it certainly gives any film in a crowded marketplace a better shot at selling more tickets and moving videos off the shelves. Not surprisingly, having two stars is better than one, and any number above that is pure gravy and/or nothing short of Heaven-sent occurrence or a soul-selling pact with the Devil.

Accordingly, this week's release of "The Mexican" should have the odds going for it. That's because not only does it have James "Tony Soprano" Gandolfini from HBO's hit series, but it also sports the first pairing of mega-wattage stars Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts together in a film.

Of course, "together" is a relative term as the two charismatic, attractive and talented celebrities spend most of the film apart from one another, save for some introductory and concluding moments. In fact, not since "Sleepless in Seattle" kept stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan separated for much of its duration has a film deliberately conspired to avoid exactly what its potential audience wants to see, and that's the pairing and hopeful chemistry between its two stars.

Although some viewers are apt to be disappointed by that fact and will wish they were afforded more of the old couple bickering routine that Roberts and Pitt put on display, the stars' separation/isolation doesn't necessarily derail the proceedings. Instead, director Gore Verbinski ("Mouse Hunt") and screenwriter J.H. Wyman ("Pale Saints," "Mr. Rice's Secret") have fashioned two distinct, but interrelated stories that obviously feed off the other, but nevertheless work rather well on their own.

While the alternating story approach isn't as distracting or momentum killing as one might expect, the film's comedy and brutal action combo and tone might be the second big surprise for viewers. Much like Eddie Murphy's "48 Hours" caught some off guard with its mixture of mirth and lethal mayhem, this one will probably do the same. Although such a combination could easily produce an uneven picture, the cast and crew manage to keep things moving along in a mostly light and quirky fashion despite the lethal and bloody violence that occasionally erupts.

Much of that obviously stems from the charismatic presence of the film's stars who seem to be having a blast playing their parts. In yet another example of him downplaying his glamorous movie star aura, Pitt ("Snatch," "Fight Club") delivers an infectiously entertaining performance as a character who's best described in the film as someone who manages to Forrest Gump his way through whatever he encounters.

As fun as it is watching Pitt do his bumbling but resourceful thing, the combination of Roberts ("Erin Brockovich," "Notting Hill") and Gandolfini ("Get Shorty," TV's "The Sopranos") together is what makes the film work by mixing comedy with heart. While the whole bit about her hostage character digging into his kidnapper's personal life is clearly nothing new, the way in which the two performers play that, their parts and off each other generates much of the film's best and most enjoyable and entertaining moments.

In fact, and although some of that credit obviously goes to Wyman's dialogue and Verbinski's directorial timing, such scenes and the overall film for that matter probably wouldn't work as well had "lesser" performers inhabited those three central parts. Without them, viewers would be more apt to tire of the plot that, while moderately fun and engaging, isn't quite as good or intriguing as it seems to think it is. With or without the stars' presence, the film does feel a bit long, even with a late in the game surprise, extended cameo appearance of yet another star.

It also takes an unfortunate and somewhat unexpected turn toward the end that sucks a great deal of enjoyment and life - both literally and figuratively - from the proceedings, thus reducing some of the fun spirit that up to that point had run through it.

Despite all of that and a few moments here and there that come off as contrived and/or sloppy from a logic standpoint, the film nonetheless manages to be a mostly entertaining production that's certainly easy to watch thanks to the presence of its three stars and their lively and fun performances. Not perfect or great but better than much of the dreck that's currently playing in the movie houses, "The Mexican" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 27, 2001 / Posted March 2, 2001

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