Tag Archives: C+

THE MEXICAN

A famous actor makes an unbilled appearance in a small role toward the close of Gore Verbinski’s romantic comedy-thriller “The Mexican,” and he does a thoroughly professional job. There’s nothing special to the part, though, and it could have been played equally well by any number of fellows whose faces and names few of us would recognize. So the question arises: why the cameo? The answer seems to be nothing more profound than that the actor thought it might be fun and the filmmakers knew it would give the audience an easy kick: “Hey, isn’t that…?” And that’s precisely the problem with the whole film. It’s not that “The Mexican” is terrible; the male half of the leading couple refers to what’s he’s suffered over the course of the plot as a “long debacle,” but it would unfair to apply that phrase to the picture. Indeed, the flick has its share of quirkily amusing moments, and the performers appear to be enjoying themselves–something that engages the audience, too. But it’s one of those films that, while sporadically pleasant, never really achieves critical mass. Though likable enough in a rather dowdy, rumpled way, it’s too fractured and structurally slipshod to amount to much, and so ephemeral that it passes out of the consciousness almost as soon as it unspools. You’ll probably walk out of the theatre feeling reasonably good, but unable to remember a great deal about what you’ve just seen, and not caring either.

“The Mexican” is basically a loopy road picture, but oddly enough–given its pairing of Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts–the superstars share remarkably little screen time, being separated through most of the labyrinthine plot. Pitt plays Jerry Welbach, a decidedly laid-back and physically clumsy fellow who’s accidentally forced into performing a service for a now-incarcerated mob boss and assigned to travel south of the border to retrieve a priceless revolver (the “Mexican” of the title) for the fellow. Jerry’s girlfriend Samantha (Roberts) objects most strenuously, saying she’ll leave him if he goes off without her; but the poor schmuck sees no alternative, having been threatened with death if he refuses. So Jerry makes his way to Mexico, where his natural ineptitude and bad luck soon get him into trouble involving local robbers, the police and a variety of other colorful characters. Meanwhile Samantha is taken hostage by a gunman named Leroy (James Gandolfini), who’s apparently been assigned to keep her under wraps as insurance that Jerry will complete the job. Most of the picture deals alternately with Jerry’s increasingly frustrating experiences in doing what’s expected of him and Sam and Leroy’s gradual development of a sense of camaraderie and mutual respect; as part of his journey, Jerry is exposed to a variety of mythic descriptions (all delivered in surrealistic flashback) about how the fabled gun came to be, while on her side Samantha becomes a kind of romantic advisor to the captor-hitman, whose predilections turn out to be rather different from what one might expect. This might all sound quite benign, but the picture has a distinctly seamy side, too: the action is repeatedly punctuated by gruesome killings and a succession of double-crosses and twists that don’t mesh terribly well with the fluffier moments. (The intricacies of the plot, which once more show the seemingly ubiquitous influence of “Charade,” are also occasionally inexplicable: at one point a major character simply disappears without explanation, presumably for no better reason than that the scriptwriter had no further need of him, and the denouement is virtually incomprehensible.) The apparent intent was (with all due respect to Gandolfini) to replicate on the big screen the combination of light and dark that “The Sopranos” has managed on the small one. Unfortunately, neither scripter J.H. Wyman nor helmer Verbinski (whose sole previous effort was the heavy-handed techno-farce “Mouse Hunt”) has the dexterity to bring off so delicate a balance. As a result “The Mexican” careens so uneasily from slapstick to violence to froth to suspense that you’ll probably end the ride feeling a bit car-sick.

Nonetheless the malady doesn’t prove fatal, largely because the cast is so game. Pitt proves an amiable goofball, managing to keep his character sympathetic even after we see him doing some pretty awful things. Roberts is compelled to rant too much and too often–shrewishness doesn’t really become her–but she’s unmistakably a star, working well with both Pitt and Gandolfini, who brings the same mix of authority and bemusement to Leroy that he regularly invests Tony Soprano with. There are eye-catching supporting turns from Bob Balaban in a decidedly uncharacteristic role as a mob lieutenant whose sharp tongue and smooth manner make him a threatening figure indeed, and Richard Coca, who brings a welcome geniality to the part of a roguish car thief. I won’t reveal who the surprise guest star is at the close; but at least it’s not Gary Oldman again.

The good news about “The Mexican,” therefore, is that it gives its stars some nice opportunities to showcase their talents, and isn’t unbearable. The bad news is that structurally it’s as clumsy as its bumbling hero, and its multiple shifts of tone may leave you a more than a little queasy by the close.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2

It’s entirely fitting that John Woo should have been called
upon to direct this second installment in the series based on
the old TV series: the script by Robert Towne (who once wrote
pieces like “Chinatown” and “Shampoo” rather than such mindless
fluff) is like Woo’s earlier “Face/Off” squared; the hero
and the villain change their appearances so frequently (and
so ludicrously) via the use of “state-of-the-art” latex masks
that one can never be entirely sure who’s really reciting
the dialogue or taking the bullet.

But unlike “Face/Off” or Woo’s other John Travolta-starrer
“Broken Arrow,” or most of his Hong Kong oeuvre for that
matter, “Mission: Impossible 2” is played extremely straight,
with little of the leavening of humor that might make the
absurd material more palatable. Since the director remains a
master of controlled, balletic mayhem, the outcome has a
certain stylishness and sheen, but the picture is like a
beautifully-wrapped package with nothing to speak of inside.

This time around Towne appears to have taken to heart the
criticism that the previous “Mission” film, for which he was
only one of the scribes, had a plot so convoluted as to be
well-nigh imcomprehensible. In this instance he’s cobbled
together a fairly simple, straightforward narrative about an
assignment given our stalwart hero Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) to
retrieve from a greedy turncoat colleague named Sean (Dougray
Scott) a destructive bio-engineered virus stolen from a
pharmaceutical firm. The effort involves him with a beautiful
thief named Nyah (Thandie Newton), a former squeeze of Sean’s,
whom he recruits for his team and inevitably falls for.
Though there are some twists and turns along the way and many
action set-pieces, the plot runs pretty much runs a direct
course to the final bravura showdown between the two men in
which–you guessed it–Nyah’s survival hangs in the balance.

Though it boasts some of the trappings of the TV show (the use
of disguises, most obviously), “Mission: Impossible 2” actually
plays more like an Americanized version of a James Bond movie.
The series was a real ensemble piece, with the company of
players regularly involved in an intricately-constructed,
duplicitous scheme to fool some badguy into making a fatal
mistake. Here, however (as in the previous screen incarnation),
the story is mostly a one-man show, with the invincible star
using a few underlings but mostly his hands, feet and
innumerable guns to undermine the villain’s dastardly plot
through outrageous break-ins and lots of bone-crunching
fisticuffs. Cruise doesn’t really fit this rather blank
action-star mold terribly well, but he’s certainly buffed up
for the part and carries off the various kung-fu interludes
and chase sequences with reasonable elan, if too little a sense
of fun. Scott is too lightweight a performer to generate the
sense of menace his part requires (the absence of a truly
formidable villain has weakened recent Bond flicks, too), but
he tries to snarl efficiently. Newton is a gorgeous screen
presence, whose enigmatic face Woo plays nicely with, but she
can’t muster the tone of refined, Grace Kelly-like mystery
(think of “To Catch a Thief,” for instance) that the film is
apparently aiming at in her character; and audiences will
probably find her self-sacrificial inclinations at the close
more risible than affecting. The other two members of Hunt’s
team are played by Ving Rhames and John Polson, both of whom
are quite wasted–Rhames in being forced to spend most of his
screen time in front of a dreary laptop computer, talking
over a microphone, and Polson in desperately trying to provide
some comic relief without any material to do it with. Brendan
Gleeson is surprisingly anonymous as the head of the drug firm
involved in producing the virus (and also, as it turns out,
Sean’s primary mark), as is Richard Roxburgh as Sean’s second-
in-command, a character much less interesting than its
obvious model, Martin Landau’s slimy, sexually ambiguous
Leonard in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” (yet
another nod to a performer who was part of the original
“Mission” ensemble, no doubt). Anthony Hopkins has a couple
of brief unbilled scenes as Hunt’s boss (I almost wrote “M”);
he smirks knowingly and cocks his head to one side in a
simulation of acting, but fools nobody thereby.

And that leaves Woo. The director manages to keep the plot
nicely clear throughout (something that Brian De Palma, great
craftsman though he is, didn’t manage in the initial episode
of the series), as well as including a few of his own personal
visual flourishes (lots of pigeons flying about in underground
tunnels in one climactic scene); and he and cinematographer
Jeffrey L. Kimball have given the whole picture a gleaming,
lustrous look that’s continually eye-catching. He’s also
staged the action sequences with predictable aplomb–lots of
flying glass here, saturated with deep blues and purples;
plenty of chopsocky pummeling there; and a motorcycle-and-
car chase toward the close, replete with flaming burnouts and
near-misses, that’s pulled off with virtuoso flair. (In this
respect, too, he’s succeeded far better than De Palma.) But
there’s little of the iconoclastic undercurrents that marked his
best previous work: no self-referential humorous winks, and
certainly none of the operatic but oddly effective emotionalism
one felt in his Hong Kong classics. It’s not for lack of
trying: Woo obviously wants some of the bits to have an
amusing charge, and he strains at the close to give weight
to Nyah’s unfortunate situation. The problem is that Cruise
is simply too leaden a presence to generate the compensatory
sense of lightness that Chow Yun-Fat could effortlessly embody
even in the midst of the most raging violence and grief
(Cruise has a charming smile, sure, but it always seems to be
directed at others rather than himself), and the Cruise-
Newton relationship never achieves the sort of tragic dimension
that could give the concluding showdown the gonzo depth that
the director is famous for. As with so much of “Mission:
Impossible 2,” therefore, the director’s achievement is just
a surface one. Still, the picture is Woozy enough, even on
the level of mere appearances, to keep the eye engaged, if not
the mind; and as explosive summer blockbusters go, it’s more
attractive and exciting than most. (It’s certainly preferable
to the limp Brosnan Bond efforts.)

It may be noted, finally, that Paramount’s advertising scheme
makes “Mission: Impossible 2” one of those rare flicks that
are identified by simple abbreviation–here, “M:I-2” (an
apparent imitation of what worked for the “Terminator” sequel).
A pity that the same drive for shortening couldn’t have been
applied in the editing process, too: at slightly more than two
hours, the picture runs a little overlong, and some judicious
cutting would not have been amiss.