THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Legend has it that the gun was created to entice a nobleman to marry the daughter of the blacksmith. It was a beautifully designed pistol, with a heart-shaped chamber. What happened to the gun became the stuff of legend, but it's still floating around Mexico somewhere and a mafioso named Margolese wants it. This is the setup for The Mexican, a movie that combines romantic comedy and action, with a touch of fantasy thrown in.

Margolese sends word to his right-hand man, Nayman (Bob Balaban), that someone needs to go south of the border to retrieve the pistol. The person he wants to do this is Jerry Welbach (Brad Pitt), a hapless young man who never intended to enter the organized crime business but was unlucky enough to crash his way into it (he plowed into Margolese's car, which had the unintended affect of sending the mobster to jail when a body was found in his trunk). Jerry thought his obligation was paid off, but since he screwed up his previous assignment, he is forced to do this one too. Even less happy about the situation than Jerry is his girlfriend Samantha (Julia Roberts). They've been having relationship problems, are in couples therapy, and speak in a weird kind of pop culture psychobabble. Jerry reminds Sam that he will be killed if he refuses the assignment; she tells him that she will leave him if he doesn't take her to Vegas like he promised.

Julia Roberts is held hostage by James Gandolfini in The Mexican
Jerry decides to head for Mexico and Sam does indeed break it off with him. While he repeatedly finds and loses the pistol, she is kidnapped by Leroy (James Gandolfini). His job is to ensure that Jerry doesn't try to abscond with the treasure; Leroy plans to turn Sam over in exchange for the pistol. During their time together, Sam comes to realize that Leroy is not as psycho as he seems. In fact, he's kind of a nice guy, willing not only to listen to her complaints about Jerry, but also to offer practical advice. Jerry, meanwhile, has no one to turn to. He gets caught in a bunch of double- and triple-crossing that threatens to have him sleeping with the fishes.

The Mexican is a very odd movie. For one thing, Roberts and Pitt - two of the biggest stars working today - are apart for most of the film. They have a scene in the beginning, a few more at the end. Mostly they share screen time with others. There is also something uncommercial about the script they've chosen. You would think that they would have gone for a straight romantic comedy, without all the stuff about the gun. It also would not have been unexpected for them to play a happy couple rather than a constantly bickering one.

The fact that they didn't go for the obvious is one of the things I liked most about the picture. The Mexican is just different enough to really capture my interest. The underlying theme in the film is that these two people have a strong, undeniable love for one another. They're like magnets, able to be pulled apart slightly before snapping back together again. It takes good chemistry for stars to share the screen, but it takes more for them to not. The audience has to believe that the characters are meant for each other even when they are not together. (Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan epitomized this concept in Sleepless in Seattle.) Roberts and Pitt have enough congruency in their performances to pull it off. From the brief scenes they share, it's clear that they are on the same wavelength, which gives the audience a sense of Jerry and Sam's relationship.

Individually, both give good performances. Pitt again proves to have a natural comic ability, and Roberts does something different from her usual "light up the screen" romantic comedy work. She plays Sam as a tough, stubborn woman who so fully believes the self-help books she reads that rational thought is a thing of the past. I love her scenes with Gandolfini (a fine actor whose TV show "The Sopranos" just happens to be my favorite). Leroy starts off as a kidnapper but eventually evolves into something of a therapist. The idea of a victim bonding with a kidnapper has been done before, but The Mexican makes it fresh by giving Leroy some revelations that make his character original.

Another strong feature is the use of flashbacks to explain the legend of the pistol. As Jerry goes along, he comes to understand more and more about the importance of the gun he's chasing. Shot in a flickering sepia, these flashbacks give the film a sense of legend that adds flavor to the story. There are three of them, and each one introduces a new piece of the puzzle. Director Gore Verbinski (Mouse Hunt) incorporates them well, making them feel like a necessary part of things rather than a distraction. Credit also goes to writer J.H. Wyman for avoiding action movie cliches in favor of something more graceful.

The main weakness of The Mexican is that there's a little too much going on (I've left out several subplots). At times, it feels like the movie is all over the map. I can deal with that flaw, though, because everything else is offbeat enough to be interesting. Despite having two major movie stars and a famous TV personality, The Mexican is not formulaic. It is original and clever, with a surprisingly moving backstory that made me care about where that pistol ended up.

( out of four)

The Mexican is rated R for violence and language. The running time is 2 hour and 3 minutes.
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