There’s a subtle scene that defines both the philosophy and the aesthetic of A Night in Old Mexico, one that percolates in your gut long after the lights are up and you’re halfway through your after-movie sesame noodles. Just a few minutes of deceptively-simple two-shot dialogue, there’s an air of menace thick enough to choke, so by the time Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh finally tosses his fateful coin, you-
Oh, I’m sorry; for a second there, I got a little confused. You can see why I might have thought I was reviewing the Coen Brothers’ marvelous No Country for Old Men – at least superficially. Set in the Mexican-American borderlands? Check. Drug deal gone deadly wrong? Check. Impetuous young man caught by circumstance with ill-gotten cash? Check. Mysterious accented hitman inexorably hunting down said loot? Check. Iconic aging actor bemoaning the loss of an older, simpler world? Check. On paper, it’s not quite similar enough for Cormac McCarthy to sue, but writer Bill Wittliff and director Emilio Aragón should be embarrassed all the same.
They should be doubly embarrassed by the fact that, everywhere the movie departs from No Country’s template in substance and in style, it does so in a headlong sprint for the tried-and-boring, substituting ambiguity with banality, memorable characters with stereotypes, and unpredictable development with cookie-cutter arcs. In short, if your problem with No Country for Old Men was that it was insufficiently comprised of forgettable claptrap, well, A Night in Old Mexico is the movie for you.
Robert Duvall is Red (seriously) Bovie, an old bull-riding cantankerous-but-clearly-good-hearted southwestern rancher. He’s packing up his life to move into the old folks’ trailer community after developers snatched his land when his heretofore unknown grandson Gally (Jeremy Irvine) shows up. Suddenly there’s a Mexican adventure full of growing and bonding and falling in love and, oh yes, wouldn’t you know that big backpack full of cash ends up in the back of their red Cadillac?
Joaquín Cosío (Quantum of Solace’s General Medrano) is the deadly assassin; we know how dangerous he is because the girl (Angie Cepeda) says he is. Yes, of course there’s a girl, named Patty Wafers (seriously); she’s Mexican, she has a heart of gold, local knowledge, and spontaneous wisdom, and she is unflinchingly loving and supportive of our protagonists despite having just met them – we’ve got to get that romantic angle in there! Patty actually says that Red “was the first thing that made her [dramatic pause] happy” six hours after she met him and all that’s happened is some dancing and her nearly getting shot over the loot.
There’s a dancing montage; Irvine is consistently terrible; an “even-more-evil” villain lurks; a car, shot once, explodes; everything is yellow until scary things happen and then everything is blue; and of course everything happens on Día de los Muertos to ensure we understand that Mexico exists as an exotic-yet-anodyne Other-land that exists solely for the purpose of catalyzing the personal growth of our gringo heroes. Toss into the mix some sloppy continuity gaps, lapses in logic, painfully unsurprising revelations, and some incredibly on-the-nose Big Speeches (“I’m broken, I’m old”) and the outcome is as predictable as it is disappointing.
A Night in Old Mexico’s worst crime is that it’s boring, and by extension being a waste. Robert Duvall is a legend – he told us napalm smelled like victory, he told Don Corleone his boy was massacred – and he is admirably game to try and make Bovie one of those twilight roles that makes us fondly remember why a beloved aging actor was beloved. Indeed, Duvall’s first scene where he flirts with suicide is genuinely moving and promising, and right through the end (with what may have been the worst fight scene put to film since Kirk fought a Gorn) not a beat is phoned in. Watching Duvall try to make a character out of the cardboard cutout he was handed is, in the end, a more moving struggle than any experienced by the aging rancher he portrays.