"The Mexican" certainly isn't lacking in star power, though much of the voltage isn't courtesy of marquee names Brad Pitt (seen recently in "Snatch") or Julia Roberts (Oscar-nominated for her turn in last year's "Erin Brockovich"). Instead, the most engaging thespian on the screen is James Gandolfini, the former-generic-character-actor-turned heavy-hitter thanks to a little television show called "The Sopranos". In his first film role since "8mm", Gandolfini easily outshines the two more prominent headliners, and almost single-handedly saves "The Mexican" from being just another star-studded production that puts the emphasis on big names instead of a good script ("3000 Miles to Graceland" anyone?).
"The Mexican" aspires to, but doesn't quite achieve, the unique mix of black comedy and emotionally-endearing drama accomplished by last year's "Nurse Betty". The hapless protagonist here is Jerry Welbach (Pitt), who in addition to not being very bright, is at the beck-and-call of crime boss Arnold Margolese (Gene Hackman of "The Replacements") for some undisclosed prior debt. Because he bungled up a previous assignment, which was supposed to be his 'last job', he is given a new 'last job' by Margolese's lieutenant Bernie Nayman (Bob Balaban of "Three to Tango"): fly to Mexico and pick up the titular 'Mexican', a rare pistol that is supposed to be cursed.
This sudden change in plans doesn't sit well with Jerry's neurotic and argumentative girlfriend of five years, Samantha Barzel (Roberts), whom he promised to take to Las Vegas. With his life on the line, Jerry departs for Mexico, with the full intention to make it up to Samantha when he gets back. However, Samantha has other ideas, and she motors off to Las Vegas by herself, vowing to start her life anew... without Jerry.
Unfortunately, things don't go well in Mexico. In addition to being played as a sucker by the locals for being the only non-Spanish-speaking gringo around, Jerry quickly loses the pistol soon after it comes into his possession, along with his car and his money. Meanwhile, on the road to Las Vegas, Samantha is taken hostage by a hired gun named Leroy (Gandolfini) as a form of 'insurance' against Jerry running off with the pistol. However, to Samantha's surprise, Leroy turns out to have a 'softer side', and in no time, they're swapping personal insights and bonding like the best of friends.
Director Gore Verbinski ("Mousehunt") keeps things relatively light and breezy throughout most of "The Mexican". Jerry's misadventures in Mexico are an amusing series of broad comic set pieces accompanied by a score that calls to mind the 'Spaghetti Western' soundtracks of Ennio Morricone. Three contradictory accounts of the legend behind 'The Mexican' are realized as silent-film clips, while Samantha's mad-dog spouting incorporates multi-syllabic psychotherapy gobbledygook that her diminished skills of articulation obviously can't handle.
However, where the film really starts to show promise is in the scenes between Gandolfini and Roberts. As the 'hitman with a heart of gold', Gandolfini is the most interesting character in the entire film, a study in contrasts that is both believable and moving. As Leroy becomes fast friends with Samantha, it is evident that there is some great chemistry at work between Gandolfini and Roberts. Roberts also benefits from Gandolfini's presence, as she plays off the sensitive Leroy character in a manner that is both warm and endearing-- one particularly memorable scene has Roberts at her bubbly best when Samantha figures out Leroy's 'secret'. This is in stark contrast to the lack of chemistry she shares with Pitt, both in the film's beginning and end, where sparks are noticeably absent, and their overdone 'henpecking' quickly grows old.
Unfortunately, the film jettisons Gandolfini's character at the end of the second act, which ends up casting a pall on what follows. This sudden change of pace leaves an emotional vacuum in the film, one that both Pitt and Roberts are ill-equipped to fill. Though the script then tries to elevate the story to the level of 'feel good' drama by explaining the reason for the whole wild goose chase (angelic choir included), it doesn't quite work because of the bad taste left by a questionable plot point.
For the most part, "The Mexican" is an entertaining and occasionally charming combination of comedy, crime-drama, and romance, due largely in part to James Gandolfini, whose terrific performance more than makes up for the lack of conspicuous chemistry between his bigger-name co-stars, Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt. Unfortunately, what could have been a promising and emotionally satisfying film ends up being dead on arrival, as a serious narrative misstep ends up destroying the film's only emotional center, a mistake from which it never recovers.