Well, there goes Julia Roberts' post-Oscar credibility. No sooner does she have us all believing that Erin Brockovich would usher in her new phase as an honest-to-goodness actress than along comes The Mexican and blows her cover. Her shrieking, jittery, show-offy turn here is all performance and no character: it's simply star-power wackiness punctuated by that trademark smile.
Brad Pitt can't sneak out of the dock either. Sure, he's better looking than ever, but he's as guilty as Roberts of playing the goofy card in order to hog the spotlight rather than further the plot. Both actors are so self-consciously OTT that you can't buy into their characters' predicaments nor do you feel the remotest sense of danger. This means The Mexican can't be rated as anything other than a below-average time-filler.
Perhaps the real culprit is director Gore Verbinski (Mouse Hunt). A stronger hand behind the camera might have kept the stars in check and got to grips with a narrative that barely makes sense (who hired who to get the gun, and for who?). Complexity is good in a thriller but confusion is not, and this is a thriller with fewer twists than a Roman road and plenty of potholes along the way.
If there's one good thing to come out of this stalled star vehicle, though, it's that Brad and Julia share little screen time together, leaving the path clear for James Gandolfini (TV's Tony Soprano) to hit the film's high notes. He has the physical presence to carry off his casting as the hired heavy, but also the talent to rise above the script cliché that, to be a killer with a sensitive heart, his character has to be a closet homosexual. Gandolfini gives Leroy depth, dignity and the promise of a few secrets, while no other character on screen appears to have any additional life before or after the credits roll.
The final straw is that the Pitt-and-gun-in-Mexico plot and the Roberts-as-hostage plot don't really mesh. Verbinski and writer JH Wyman are clearly trying to keep two distinct fan bases happy, but they end up pleasing no-one. Nor can the leads' failing relationship engage our sympathies when the story about the pistol's origins, told in flashback, contains a far stronger moment of tragic romance.
With Lawrence Bender on board as a producer, the aim was no doubt for a Pulp Fiction-style, genre-bending flick with an A-list cast. The elements are all here, but they're randomly scattered over a two-hour period. Verbinski isn't a Tarantino, Peckinpah or Coen - and The Mexican is about as entertaining as a wedding band playing La Bamba.