As a conflicted gay hitman, James Gandolfini owns the offbeat comedy The Mexican

As a conflicted gay hitman, James Gandolfini owns the offbeat comedy The Mexican

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Instead of looking to the multiplex for inspiration, we honor James Gandolfini by singling out our favorite of the late actor’s performances.

The Mexican (2001)
When The Mexican came out in the spring of 2001, The Sopranos was just kicking off its third season—the two-part première aired the very same weekend that the movie opened. Tony Soprano was now a full-fledged cultural icon, and James Gandolfini might conceivably have felt that he had a badass public image to protect. Instead, he chose, at the height of the show’s popularity, to play a gay hitman in this offbeat comedy—not milking the character for easy laughs, but inhabiting him with the same volcanic depth of feeling that made Tony so memorable. Ostensibly, The Mexican is a vehicle for Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, but the two stars barely appear onscreen together, with Pitt quickly whisked off to Mexico to retrieve an antique pistol (the “Mexican” of the title). Nearly half the movie sees Roberts teamed with Gandolfini, as he lugs her around trying to locate Pitt and pistol, and she gradually turns her abductor into a confidant.

Like most offbeat comedies, The Mexican has a sensibility you’re either in sync with or really, really aren’t. (Director Gore Verbinski gives it much the same sprightly rhythm as the first Pirates Of The Caribbean, before that franchise got bloated.) Even those who don’t find the film funny, however, can’t deny the power of Gandolfini’s self-loathing, tough-but-tender fool for love, who arguably provides more soul than such a goofy trifle can handle. Rather than lazily answer the question “What if Tony Soprano were gay?”, Gandolfini creates a wholly distinct character who’s at war with his inherent sense of compassion (a real liability in his line of work). There’s no cheap, winking contradiction between the man’s brutal acts of violence and his teary anecdotes about finding a lover who can accept him for who he is. Both erupt from the same wellspring of emotional truth—one that Gandolfini insisted on bringing to every role he played.

Availability: DVD but still no Blu-ray, rental or purchase from the usual digital providers, and disc delivery from Netflix.