September 22nd, 2006
Luc Besson turns his attention to the western genre with “Bandidas.” Chillingly featherweight, but still oodles of corset-and-six-gun fun, the peppery charms of stars Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek routinely save the picture when Besson and his production team run out of things for the actresses to do.
When a ruthless enforcer (Dwight Yoakam) sweeps across Mexico deviously swindling small towns out of their banks to control a railroad line, he leaves behind a bloody trail of bodies in his wake. Two of the dead are the fathers of Sara (Salma Hayek) and Maria (Penelope Cruz), two polar opposite Mexican women who decide to team up and rob the banks before the bad guys can get to them. With the reluctant help of an American “criminal science” officer (Steve Zahn), the bandidas ride across Mexico, attempting to liberate the country from the clutches of evil.
After spending an extended amount of time tackling the action genre with superb results (“District B13,” “Unleashed”), producer and co-writer Luc Besson is looking for a change of scenery. Taking his to-the-point filmmaking formula to the western stage, “Bandidas” is a strangely entertaining action comedy that accomplishes a lot more Mexican fun and adventure than the last Zorro sequel could muster. It’s incredibly inconsequential, buttery entertainment, but it’ll surely put a smile on your face if you can find a way to appreciate its rambunctious spirit.
Debuting directors Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg waste little time getting to the heart of this venture, using a measly 20 minutes of screentime to set up both Maria and Sara’s impetus for revenge. From there, the film tears off in dusty, corset-pinched fury, putting the two actresses through minor stunts, speedy comic banter (well, as speedy as the actresses can get with their accents), and some cat fighting for fans of physical comedy and general perverts.
Clearly, this is a huge departure in tone for Hayek and Cruz. Given the chance to play with jokes and guns, the actresses take great delight in the project, willing and able to go wherever Besson can dream. Cruz especially seems to be having a ball, freed from her traditional heavy dramatic roles and set loose in a Wild West setting. Friends behind the camera as well, Hayek and Cruz share tremendous chemistry, and their goofy, competitive interplay keeps the film rolling when the filmmakers have trouble deciding what exactly to do with these bank robbers, or how best to exploit the actresses’ roman candle sexual appeal – settling on a single iffy scene where the duo assume the guise of saloon prostitutes to convince Zahn of evildoing.
A slightly wacky western comedy, “Bandidas” doesn’t exactly hold much dramatic weight. In keeping things so frothy, the film sometimes, even at 85 minutes, runs out of inspiration. The climax involving gold bars, a train, and a bullet-time skirmish comes across as a contrived, ordinary way to close the film, replacing the magnetism of Hayek and Cruz with overthought action to exit on a grand note. If anything had been clearly demonstrated by this point, it’s that Hayek and Cruz should be the focal point no matter what action beats the story demands.
My rating: B