Some people spend their whole lives searching for something. Some people find it.
Harriet Winslow, an overly buff spinster, travels to Chihuahua to teach jazzercise to the Mexican aristocracy, and see where they make those cute little dogs. Arroyo, an LA lawless General in Pancho Villa's revolutionary army, pseudo kidnaps our timid tutor and uses her as bait to slaughter a couple hundred people at her destination, the Hacienda de Miranda. Then he falls in love with her. Also pining for a little matronly mattress waltz is aging author Ambrose Bierce, who bid the US a bitter farewell and high tailed it to Me-hee-co to fight with Villa, if only to pad his résum#&233;. Ambie and Arrie are so busy puffing their chests and stroking their frijoles over this faded female that they seem to forget all about the revolution. After a fortnight of tortillas in mole sauce, everyone wants Arroyo to give up the Proletariat comfy chair and fight the Federales. For incentive, they taunt him with a blistering Tejano style character attack. This only makes him long for more Tijuana tussles with Harriet. So Bierce decides to really torque him off and saddles his horse. This insanely rude act vexes Arroyo so much that he shoots the horse, and then Ambrose. Harriet runs to Uncle Sam and tattles, and Poncho Villa shows up to provide some manner of revolution style justice.
Since African-Americans have been successful in preventing the re-issue of Disney's politically incorrect fable The Song of the South, it's surprising that Mexican-American sensitivity groups are not chomping at the churro to blot this slur filled slander-fest off the cinematic map. Old Gringo is a stereotype wrapped in an epithet, a movie that demeans the very subjects it wants to champion. When speaking Español, the characters are noble and natural. When barking pigeon English, they suddenly turn into an ultra xenophobic Bill Dana channeling Jose Jimenez's retarded cousins. Everyone talks like Ren Hoak! This film wants to have the sweep of a grand romantic tragedy, where hubris and the heart lead decent people to less than stellar ends. However, this is epic lite, a potential Gone With the Wind that dissipates and oozes into an incredibly feeble Harlequin Romance featuring the Frito Banditos. It relegates the revolution to footnote in favor of multiple scenes of Fonda looking wistful. The sets are nacho cheesy, so draped in saturated back lot color and overdone art direction that you expect Fabio to arrive, grease up his otherworldly pecs, and grab Jane for a pose down. The script is filled with ponderous, overly wordy dialogue that sounds like boorish Hallmark greeting cards for desperados. Everyone meets cute, dies hard, and any other over the top Hollywood cliché you can imagine in the name of plotting. It offers no other insight into the revolution or its politics, except that the peasants were pissed and wanted to shoot people.
The biggest problem here, though, is the performances. Jimmy Smits looks like he borrowed his wardrobe from Speedy Gonzales and portrays the first recorded case of manic depression in the entire Mexican Revolution. One minute he's happy and dancing, the next he is gloomy and struggling to seem conscious. Jane Fonda, fresh from abusing the free weights, plays the only old maid who can bench-press a burro. She's not so much a character as an ad for Soloflex. And poor Gregory Peck; the elder statesman from Hollywood's heyday is encumbered with long, labored speeches out of An Old Coots Guide to Charming the Ladies. Those hot breezes blowing off the desert can usually be attributed to this grandiloquent old windbag. Director Luis Puenzo only makes matters worse. The only action in his war picture occurs at the very beginning of the film. He belabors useless points with long ponderous shots of people looking at themselves in mirrors. The main dilemma is resolved in the first hour, and the last 55 minutes are spent in an entirely different film about…well…it's hard to say. About pride? About land? About Pancho Villa? Still, he gets some points for originality, since it's not every film that offers turn of the century hookers, bereft of rampant disease, that would gladly service your pre-battle sexual needs for a copy of Beowulf.
It is clear that one thing they had on those warm nights in Mexicali was compression defects. If you have ever watched this movie on a weak UHF channel during a lightning storm, you've seen a better picture than Columbia TriStar offers here. And the box can claim all it wants that the DVD was digitally remastered—the transfer tells the tale. Sure, the film is 13 years old, but to offer a weak and soft image for a film that lives or dies by its visual scope seems borderline suicidal. Full and wide screen versions are offered here, and in some ways, the full screen image looks better. Sound wise, the only impression the Dolby Digital 4.0 "discreet surround" will make on your home theater is during the battle scenes. C/TS cannot even be bothered to offer an Old Gringo trailer. The two presented are from other, better films. The legendary "Old Gringo" of the title, Ambrose Bierce, is best remembered for a short story called "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," a haunting tale that turns out to be the fantasy of a soldier in the seconds before his neck is broken by a hangman's noose. It's too bad this movie it not just some poor dope's fleeting pre-death vision. After sitting through 120 minutes of it, you too will be praying for a gallows.
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