"I'm just here to regulate funkiness."
DreamWorks comes out of the chute with another solid DVD release of a mediocre movie.
Facts of the Case
Jerry Welbach (Brad Pitt—A River Runs Through It, Fight Club, Snatch) is in trouble. For the past five years he has been working for a mysterious mobster named Margolese (Gene Hackman—Hoosiers, Unforgiven). Jerry's involvement with Margolese started when Jerry ran a red light and ran into Margolese's car. This would not have been so bad, but Margolese had a person in the trunk, and the accident allowed the cops to find him. Margolese was sent to jail, and Jerry was forced to work for him as repayment. Jerry's service to Margolese is due to end, but he has one last task that he must accomplish. Jerry must fly to Mexico and retrieve an ornate antique pistol, which is rumored to be cursed. All Jerry has to do is go to Mexico, get the gun, bring it back, and his service to Margolese will be complete. Alternatively, he can refuse the job and wind up dead.
However, Margolese and his heavies are not Jerry's biggest problem. His biggest problem is that he has promised to bring his girlfriend Samantha Barzel (Oscar larcenist Julia Roberts—Pretty Woman, Notting Hill) to Las Vegas so that they can begin a new life there. The job in Mexico, even though it will only take a few days, conflicts with their scheduled trip. Samantha, a self-help psychobabbling freak, feels that Jerry's desire to complete this last task (and thereby stay alive) is selfish and inconsiderate of her "needs." After a long and vocal argument in which she hurls every Mars and Venus-style relationship cliché invented in the last 15 years at him, they head off on their separate ways: he to Mexico to complete his job and stay alive, and her to Vegas to pursue her dream of becoming a waitress and working her way up to blackjack dealer.
Needless to say, neither trip turns out exactly as planned. Jerry meets with all sorts of strange complications in Mexico. Samantha finds herself in the custody of Leroy (James Gandolfini—The Sopranos), a strangely sensitive hitman assigned to keep tabs on her as insurance that Jerry will do as he promises. They have a wild and colorful time in Vegas, and spend a lot of time engaging in pseudo-intellectual blathering about love, relationships, and feelings.
The Mexican is really two movies grafted together in some bizarre Frankenstein experiment gone awry. Half of the movie takes place in Mexico, where we follow Jerry on his harrowing and hilarious misadventure to retrieve the antique pistol. These scenes provide an atmosphere of dark comedy, seeming almost like Jerry Lewis meets Quentin Tarantino. Brad Pitt is great in the Mexico scenes, capturing Jerry's bumbling good nature and making him very believable and likeable. One of the hardest things for an actor is to create characters that the audience will identify with and care about, and Pitt succeeds. We feel bad for Jerry in his mixed-up relationship with Samantha and his unfortunate situation with his mob employers. Pitt plays Jerry as a likeable doofus, and we as the audience root for him to get out of trouble, get the gun, and bring a happy ending to his quest.
The other half of the movie unfortunately follows the psychobabble-addicted Samantha and the navel-gazing hitman Leroy through their experiences in Las Vegas. After the fun and weird energy of the Mexico scenes, these scenes come as an unwelcome intrusion on an otherwise enjoyable flick. It is a real disappointment every time the movie wrenches us away from Mexico and forces us to spend time with Samantha and Leroy. These scenes rob The Mexican of its creativity and sense of fun, and mortally wound it in the process. They are not unlike the monotonous chapters in Moby Dick that interrupt the narrative with encyclopedic descriptions of the minutiae of whaling. The Las Vegas scenes fatally wound The Mexican, causing it to drag on for what seems like forever.
One of the best parts of The Mexican is the score, primarily by Alan Silvestri (Father of the Bride, Predator, TV's ChiPs) but with a smattering of Los Lobos recordings and classic oldies tunes. It incorporates a lot of Mexican folk sounds, and at its best reaches a sort of eerie quality that evokes Ennio Morricone's score for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
This being a DreamWorks disc, we know the quality is bound to be first rate. The video transfer is 2.35:1 anamorphic, and looks as good as one would expect. Blacks are solid and shadow detail is excellent. The transfer does a very good job of handling some difficult scenes, such as a fiesta scene with lots of fireworks that Jerry stumbles into in Chapter 4. I did notice some slight image softness in places, and perhaps a glimpse or two of what looks like edge enhancement, but other than that, the picture was quite good.
The audio is of course outstanding as well. We are presented with three options: DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby 2.0 Surround. The DTS track is very sharp and clear, and provides excellent channel separation. There are very few scenes in The Mexican that make full use of such an aggressive audio mix, but there is a car chase scene in Chapter 21 that shows off the audio performance nicely. For the most part the rear surrounds are used for the nifty musical score, but when called upon to do so deliver some very good directional effects. If there was one problem I noticed with the audio, it was in the center dialogue channel, which tended to sound a bit hollow early in the movie, and tended to blare and distort ever so slightly from time to time. These are minor flaws, however, and for the most part the track sounded quite good. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track was quite good as well. The Mexican is one of those films where a DTS track does not have as dramatic an advantage over a Dolby Digital track as it would in oh, say, Gladiator, but in some of the wilder action scenes the advantage is clear. I'm sure neither surround audio option will disappoint.
DreamWorks is usually pretty generous with supplemental material, and The Mexican is no exception. The problem is, it's just not all that interesting. There is a commentary track featuring director Gore Verbinski (Mouse Hunt, The Ritual), screenwriter J.H. Wyman (Pale Saints), and editor Craig Wood (Forces of Nature, Mouse Hunt, The Ritual). The commentary track is moderately informative, but has a lot of gaps and makes for very dry listening. The talents behind the movie come across as slightly arrogant and excessively please with their creation.
We are also provided with eight deleted scenes complete with optional commentary. These are always a nice touch, but in this case are not that interesting. The commentary for these deleted scenes is even more yawn-inducing than the feature commentary.
Rounding out the extra material we have the HBO "Making of" featurette which is essentially 15 minutes of promotional fluff, two trailers, bios for ten cast members and thirteen behind-the-scenes filmmakers, and of course the standard DreamWorks production notes which are just a reprint of the liner notes provided in the DVD keep case.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unequivocally, the biggest disappointment in The Mexican comes from Julia Roberts. Roberts always brings a lot of energy to the screen; in this case, she brings too much and blows out all the circuit breakers. Her performance is self-indulgent, shrill, and over the top. As Roberts overacts and mugs her way through the role, she fails utterly to make Samantha seem like anything approaching a real person. Instead, Samantha seems like she is from another planet entirely. All told, it is perhaps the most grotesque and unattractive performance I have ever seen from Roberts.
The Mexican starts with a lot of promise. An intelligent, quirky, and stylish action comedy is a rare bird indeed and would have been welcome. Unfortunately, The Mexican gets mired down in the "meaningful" scenes between Roberts and Gandolfini in Las Vegas. Fortunately, with the advent of DVD these scenes are as easy to skip as are the whaling chapters in Moby Dick, and if you feel compelled to watch The Mexican, that might be the way to do it. As it is, I really can't recommend The Mexican to anyone.
The Mexican and most of those involved are guilty, and are sentenced to do time in a Mexican jail of the court's choosing. Brad Pitt is acquitted on the strength of a good comedic performance and a good effort in a losing cause. DreamWorks is once again acquitted on the strength of a solid if unremarkable DVD package.
We stand adjourned.
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