Sizzling Latina stars Penélope Cruz and Salma Hayek offer up some rootin' tootin' fun in the spirited Western comedy "Bandidas," their first feature together. Having achieved critical praise around the world for their dramatic work, the two actresses let their hair down for a lively collaboration that will hopefully lead to many more. Unfortunately, this project did not make it to most theaters across the country, but 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment is giving it a second chance to find its audience on DVD.
Taking a rather clichéd genre premise, the story unfolds in 1888 Mexico where New York banker Tyler Jackson (Dwight Yoakam) has corrupt designs on the economically struggling villages. Determined to build new American banks on the land of poor farmers and gain control of the existing banks, Jackson murders an aristocratic Mexican and leaves a farmer for dead on his ranch. When the aristocrat's pampered daughter, Sara (Salma Hayek), discovers what has happened, she sets out to avenge her father's death. Her plans are foiled when she bumps into Maria (Penélope Cruz), the farmer's daughter, who has dedicated herself to saving her country from Jackson's crooked schemes.
Although initially only motivated by her own self-interest, Sara is eventually swayed by Maria into fighting for a greater cause and helping the people of Mexico before Jackson destroys their culture and means of living. The pair's mission eventually brings them to Quentin Cooke (Steve Zahn), a nebbishy criminologist who unwittingly helped Jackson to have his way with the Mexican citizens. Quentin is drawn into the heroines' plight through their force and seductive charisma, slowly earning a greater respect for their country and traditions.
"Bandidas" is escapist fare, pure and simple, and works exceedingly well because of its stars. Cruz and Hayek, who are close friends off screen, are obviously having a lot of fun doing this, and their enthusiasm is infectious. The two make a dynamic duo with energy and sexiness to burn, and their considerable comic abilities are displayed in fine form. Their spunk and butt-kicking attitude should appeal to female audiences for the "girl power" edge, but guys will certainly not mind seeing the lovely vixens strutting their stuff. This is essentially a buddy comedy with cleavage, and quite a bit at that (although the sole nude scene belongs to Steve Zahn again).
Dwight Yoakam is an appropriately greasy villain, keeping the comic tone of the film but still creating a malicious presence. His talent as a character actor makes him a prime choice for just such a role, and few could have done it better. I'm not sure what Sam Shepard is doing in this movie, but he is certainly game, effectively portraying the wise, old mentor for Maria and Sara. It is a small role, but a nice showcase nonetheless.
I was very surprised to see that this film was co-produced and co-written by Luc Besson, the man behind such brutal female-action fare as "La Femme Nikita" and "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc." A good friend of the lead actresses, Besson agreed to write the story for them, a lightweight effort in comparison to his better known work. The story, not surprisingly, is limp and predictable. I suppose this could be deliberate as the movie sets out to spoof the Western genre, but it is relatively low on action and suspense, especially given who is behind it. At times, it relies too heavily on slapstick and not enough on the shoot-'em-up antics we would expect, and a "Matrix"-style gunfight toward the end not only reeks of gimmickry but also cuts down immensely on the steam generated by the deft comic tone and the actors' chemistry.
On the brighter side, the film is a marvel to look at—and not just because of its leading ladies. The production values are remarkably high, with authentic location shooting, lavish costumes, and expert cinematography. The flavor of old Westerns is lovingly invoked and infused with some humorously anachronistic zip. It's almost a shame that the weak screenplay did not match the A-list visuals, but in the end this was never meant to be anything more than escapist adventure. On that level, it succeeds immensely, giving viewers plenty of eye candy and over-the-top stunts, perfect for viewing with friends or just to enjoy on a rainy day.
Fox Home Entertainment's DVD release includes both an anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen transfer and a pan-and-scan version (my screener copy only included the widescreen). As with most screener copies, the disc does not give the most accurate representation of what the final product will look like. From what I could tell, colors are beautifully saturated throughout, only occasionally seeming washed out. A yellow tinge is evident in the skin tones, but I think this is probably part of the Western appearance. My screener copy contained quite a bit of artifacting, but as I said before, it is not the best indication of what is to come, so take this with a grain of salt. Black levels and sharpness look just fine, helping to bring out a crisp image that, all things considered, looks quite pleasing.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 mix does its best to skillfully distribute the sound effects around your system. Clear, hiss-free audio nicely showcases the dialogue and music, while action scenes are given an extra kick in the rear and center channels. This is a very good, immersive track with a marvelous depth of sound. A Spanish stereo track is also included, with optional English and Spanish subtitles.
Bonus features are somewhat scarce, the best being an audio commentary track with Hayek and Cruz. It's not the most informative track I've listened to, but the actresses rarely leave gaps, and their beautiful accents are a pleasure to listen to. The ladies are quite funny, and their affection for one another certainly comes through in their conversation.
A five-minute featurette, "Burning Up the Set with Salma and Penélope," is a cute piece of fluff with brief interviews with the two actresses. A trailer rounds things out.
I would definitely recommend "Bandidas" for good, solid entertainment that requires no brain-squeezing from the viewer. Quick pacing and a couple of charismatic leads are all too enticing to pass up. Here we have a fun, comic romp that delivers the goods with surprisingly wholesome results. Buddy flick, chick flick, genre subversion, whatever you wish to call it, you have to be pretty uptight not to have a smile on your face while Cruz and Hayek unleash some Latina power. Not to cheapen their effort or anything, but for a good time this weekend, call Salma and Penélope.