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'Mexican' stays north of border

It may be called "The Mexican," but Gore Verbinski's quirky caper is an entirely American affair - a studio product that has "Made in Hollywood" stamped all over it.

See, "Mexican" is one of those bulletproof movies. Regardless of how many snipers there are among critics or even audiences, "Mexican" will be remembered for two things. First of all, it pairs Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, the king and queen of the Hollywood ball. Secondly, and even more notably, "Mexican" is the movie that took an actor already lionized as a posterboy for the best in quality television programming and turned him into a major film asset as well.

That man is James Gandolfini, better known as his HBO alter ego, Tony Soprano. I'll get to him eventually, but I prefer to save the best stuff for later, just like "Mexican" does.

Without a doubt, "Mexican" is a throwback to the kind of movie-making that occurred in the 1940s, at the height of the era of the studio system, when producers were most interested in "showing" their stars. In marketing their talent, studios would find vehicles to best display their stars' attributes both physically (through carefully measured camera angles, lighting and costume) and by attempting to provide them with signature dialogue, words from which a persona could be formed. A perfect example of "showing" is "Casablanca," a movie without which audiences today might be asking "Humphrey and Ingrid who?"

Don't get me wrong. "Mexican" is by no means the next "Casablanca," nor does it ever try to be. It has a much lower degree of difficulty. It's merely a showpiece for its two titanic stars. As such, it works. Pitt glows, and Roberts beams. That "Mexican" has any depth at all is something of a miracle.

But it's no accident, thanks to J. H. Wyman's script. The writer-actor often approaches the spirit of the Coen bothers with a screenplay that infuses elements of real darkness (asking rhetorical questions - though somewhat sloppily at times - about gun worship, violence and vengeance) with a psychoanalytic meditation on relationships. Verbinski backs the latter aspect with imagery of a streetlight. This imagery asks one of the film's key questions: When should one stay back, and when should you move forward?

Quick Cut
"The Mexican"
Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts

Grade: B

"Mexican" is not just a caper. It's also a road movie, and a dual one at that. Pitt and Roberts are both on the run, but from each other as much as from the bad guys. Pitt is Jerry Welbach, a bagman for a crime syndicate who desperately wants to leave the business but is trapped. Roberts is his girlfriend, Samantha Barzel, a girl with a few simple goals: To have Jerry clean up his act, to get a ring out of him, and to embark on a promising career as a Las Vegas croupier.

Samantha's plans are thwarted, however, when Jerry must go to Mexico to obtain an antique pistol with an intriguing, poignant history to it (the "Mexican" of the title). Samantha breaks up with Jerry and heads to Vegas while he crosses the border. Luckily for us, that's when chaos ensues.

Jerry experiences a comedy of errors in Verbinski's clich