Killer Imports: Bandidas

Killer Imports is a regular feature on Film Junk where we explore foreign-language films from around the world that haven’t yet had their chance to shine.

Bandidas is a France / Mexico / USA co-production, so I wasn’t sure it qualified as a film to be reviewed under the Killer Import heading, but Sean gave me the go ahead to review it (at the risk of being ridiculed). When I purchased the Bandidas DVD, I didn’t realize that it wasn’t a Hollywood film, so I wasn’t even considering it as a possible candidate for a Killer Import review. I admit that I was feeling somewhat guilty for only reviewing Asian cinema. Being able to sing the praises of this non-Asian film is a relief. (I know. People are going to say I can’t sing.)

After I enjoyed the film, I went on the Internet to see if people shared my opinion. There seems to be a mixed-reaction. Those of you who didn’t enjoy Silver Hawk will most likely be better off disregarding my opinion of Bandidas, but I hope you’ll continue reading to get some insight into why some people like movies that you couldn’t care less for.

I’ve only done a few Killer Imports, but I’ve unconsciously been able to balance the films so that women are the protagonists in at least half of them. In Bandidas, the focus is on Salma Hayek playing a University-educated daughter of a Mexican high official and Penelope Cruz playing an uneducated daughter of a Mexican farmer. The setting is Mexico in the period of the Old West. Dwight Yoakam plays a corrupt bank officer who is corruptly taking over land from Mexican farmers and killing those who put up any resistance. Steve Zahn plays a crime detective who is an early adopter of the science of forensics. Hayek and Cruz band together to rob the banks that Yoakam has taken control of, all so the stolen money can be used to buy food for all the displaced farmers and their families. Sam Shepard appears as a retired, experienced bank robber who teaches Hayek and Cruz how to rob banks. I think that about covers the plot.

The last Western that I recall seeing with women as the protagonists was Bad Girls with Drew Barrymore, Mary Stuart Masterson, and some other women. Despite my lack of resistance to feminine wiles, I didn’t like Bad Girls. (I think Bad Girls was in answer to the male-bonding flick Young Guns.) Bandidas probably has more cleavage than Bad Girls, but Bandidas has more than cleavage going for it. The real-life friendship between the female leads comes off in the chemistry between the two characters. The initial enmity changes to friendly rivalry over things like who’s the better kisser. How’s that for a character arc! Cruz and Hayek regularly engage in playful banter and silliness throughout the movie, but also play the dramatic scenes with the necessary required seriousness.

The humor between the female leads is reinforced when Steve Zahn decides to aid the women after being convinced that something corrupt is going on. Both Hayek and Cruz had worked with Zahn before. Actually, Cruz had shown Zahn the script while they were working on Sahara. Zahn plays a level-headed character for a change, but acts as a nice comedic foil to the zany antics of Cruz and Hayek, especially when the women introduce themselves to Zahn.

Having Zahn use forensics reminded me of the Bruce Campbell Western television series, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. I loved the forward looking nature of the series when they used inventions that were precursors of technology we currently use even though the inventions most likely didn’t exist at that time.

Bandidas was a film initiated by both Hayek and Cruz who had both wanted to work together. So I guess this is a vanity project for them. They came up with the idea of doing a Western, and approached their mutual friend Luc Besson who ended up co-producing as well as co-writing the screenplay. The directors are Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg. These Norwegian directors had only directed a science fiction short film called Dag 1 previous to helming Bandidas. Besson is known for giving young talent a chance, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a hand in hiring these guys.

I thought the directors did a great job in their use of camera angles, placement and movement. The stunt doubles used were indistinguishable from the actors and were integrated into the film creatively. One scene has Cruz’ double walking on a roof, swinging down onto a balcony railing, followed by a recognizable Cruz jumping onto the balcony all in one camera motion. Another scene has Hayek looking into the camera as she falls into the river below. There is an amazing action scene with everything playing out in slow motion as the camera whip pans to catch different points of view.

The beautiful Mexican scenery and realistic looking locations add to the realism of the film. There is an awesome cave location where the displaced farmers gather. On the DVD commentary, Cruz and Hayek credit the Director of Photography, Thierry Arbogast, for lighting scenes nicely as well as making them look good.

Although the plot may seem hackneyed and familiar Western conventions might abound, the execution is more often than not quite inventive. How many of you would expect hockey skates to play a part in robbing a bank? Come to think of it, were there rinks in Mexico at the time? Perhaps it goes without saying, but there are various points in the film requiring major suspension of disbelief.

Quite a number of the reviews I read contradict my statement about imagination being shown. Maybe I haven’t seen enough films. But don’t all Westerns follow a few basic templates? I don’t want to ruin all the moments in the film, so I’ll just mention one small example of the not-so-subtle cleverness from the filmmakers. There’s a scene where Zahn is crossing between a roof top and a balcony by straddling a rope held taut by a horse. The horse gets distracted, so the rope starts dipping, lowering Zahn who is seen behind a Mexican guard tuning his banjo. The note played by the Mexican dips lower as the rope is lowered and then the note goes higher as the rope is raised when the horse returns to its proper position. Well, I thought it was clever. Speaking of banjo tuning, the music by Eric Serra appropriately captures the Western adventure throughout the film.

Some reviewers think the script suffered from a lack of comedy, but I wasn’t expecting Cruz and Hayek to spout out Woody Allen one-liners. The humor also doesn’t stoop to the lows of a Blazing Saddles, and that was fine by me. Small humorous moments like Cruz’ interaction with her horse and a dog’s affinity for Hayek added to the enjoyment of the film for me. Even Sam Shepard’s tough guy bemusement made me smile.

I should mention that at the beginning of the film when the film rating comes up, nudity is mentioned. I’ll ruin this for you right now. Yes, you get to see Steve Zahn’s bum. (Or maybe that was his body double.)

This film was made in 2006 and had a limited release domestically in a Latino theatre chain. I guess it can be considered to be a direct-to-DVD release, but this is in no way a B-movie. The production values are high and the movie is as commercially slick as anything I’ve seen from Hollywood. Perhaps movie distributors didn’t think the public wanted a Thelma and Louise set in the Old West, or a female version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (Not that Bandidas deserves to be held in as high acclaim as either of those two films.)

On the commentary track provided by Hayek and Cruz, Cruz admits that this is the first commentary she has ever done and I think Hayek admits the same. Seeing as they were responsible for getting this film made, I guess they felt obligated to add a commentary in hopes of possibly increasing DVD sales. Because they are real-life friends, their banter comes off as charming. They are astute in knowing that they can’t be too candid, but at the same time, they feel they need to say something.

I’ll give you a quick rundown on what was said in the commentary. There is no juicy gossip, but I’m offering this information as a feature of Killer Imports. If you don’t want the DVD commentary be spoiled, or if you have no interest in the personal lives of Cruz and Hayek, please skip to the next paragraph. Here we go. Cruz and Hayek had a near death experience together on an airplane. Cruz adopted a dog from Mexico during the film. Cruz is a photographer. Cruz and Hayek wore the bottom half of wet suits for the river scenes. Cruz and Hayek wished they had kept the boots from the Bandidas wardrobe. Hayek learned how to throw a knife for the film. And Hayek got many paper cuts from stuffing the paper money into her shirt.

One strange thing about my Bandidas DVD is that the manufacturers put the widescreen version on the wrong side. The DVD has both the widescreen and full screen versions on it. The inner ring should indicate which side to play in order to get which version. Normally, this would not have been much of a problem. But I had bought a used rental copy that had magic marker writing on the widescreen side! If I had rented this DVD, I would have been angry. I was able to use a cleaning solvent in order to play the widescreen version.

For me, Bandidas managed for the most part to give a slight twist to familiar elements. Perhaps you can fault it for not being particularly innovative; nevertheless, I found it a fun film to watch. I didn’t even mind the “riding into the sunset” and freeze-frame ending.

  • Reed, since your canadian, you could probably technicaly review the Dark Knight as a Killer Import. :)

  • Hm. Well, I’m the world’s biggest Cruz apologist and even I didn’t find much to write home about with this film. The comedy for me was stuff that would be amusing to a 5 year old (no offense). Something a little edgier and darker would have helped this film immensely.

    Try some Almodovar for some good Spanish cinema with Cruz.

  • Nice comment, Drew. When I do watch The Dark Knight, I think I will post a review under Killer Imports.

    Andrew, I take it that you’re not a fan of The Three Stooges? Yes, Cruz does act like she’s 10 years old in the film, but I find it charming. If the film was a little edgier and darker, I may have enjoyed it just as much.

    I think I may have seen some early Almodovar, but I don’t think I’m mature enough to appreciate his films.

  • mirorin

    His wonderful, and a nice body of splendid actor!!

    Anyway, ・・・ kwon sang woo is the best good actor.

  • mirorin

    It made a mistake in the writing place ・・・ I’m sorry ・・・.

  • Ha ha. I got all excited seeing another comment on one of my reviews, and it turns out to be a piece of shrapnel from the Kwon Sang-woo explosion. I suppose Penelope Cruz bears a passing resemblance to him. Koreans sure are polite though.