YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Double-barreled firepower

With 'Bandidas,' Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz, friends but never costars, descend on Mexico for an outlaw comedy directed by two Norwegian first-timers. Sounds like someone better rouse the sheriff.

January 23, 2005|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Chocolate, Mexico — It's one of the most urgent questions facing men of a certain age today, particularly in Latin American countries, a question that strikes at one's core values and affirms one's identity as a soccer-mad, tequila-swigging, red-blooded varon.

That question is: Salma or Penelope?

And here, off a dusty desert road in the middle of nowhere, a Hollywood film crew may be about to find some answers.

Not that "Bandidas," a western comedy-drama that bills itself as a feminized, Mexicanized "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," is notable only for its made-in-P.R.-marketing-heaven tandem of Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz, the two hottest actresses in the Spanglish-speaking world today. "Bandidas" also may be the first cowboy flick to feature a playwright (Sam Shepard) and a country singer (Dwight Yoakam) known for their sly methods of tweaking the myths and mannerisms of Marlboro Country.

And it's surely the first revisionist western to be directed by not one but two thirtysomething Norwegians, Espen Sandberg and Joachim Roenning. Childhood friends who grew up near Oslo making videos of exploding "Star Wars" figurines, their biggest prior claim to fame was a beer commercial starring a dog.

But just as "Butch Cassidy" derived much of its appeal from the sculpted cheekbones and ricocheting wisecracks of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, "Bandidas" clearly is hitching its wagon to Hayek and Cruz, whose superficial similarities (Latina, brunet, petite, pulchritudinous) have made them the subject of fierce partisan debates in chat rooms and bars across three continents. The film is expected to be released later this year by 20th Century Fox.

Visiting the "Bandidas" set, it's evident that Hayek and Cruz have established their version of the Newman-Redford rapport: mutual friendship and regard, camouflaged by constant onscreen bickering and one-upmanship. Between takes, they're thick as thieves: whispering together, laughing at each other's jokes, even sharing puffs on the same cigarette. "We share everything except boyfriends," Cruz deadpans. But the minute the cameras roll, the fur starts flying again.

"We have a huge catfight," Cruz says gleefully during a break from shooting, "and then we physically hit each other a few times during the movie." Hayek, for her part, makes it clear that she gives as good as she gets, on screen and off. "I do tease her a lot, and she puts up with it," Hayek says. "She's a trouper."

With a script co-written by French impresario Luc Besson, who is producing the movie with Ariel Zeitoun, and a polyglot crew from France, Norway, Mexico and the U.S., "Bandidas" takes a slightly cockeyed look at the Old West (via south of the border) as a place where not all men were manly and not all women were schoolmarms, saloon tarts or helpless nitwits in petticoats and parasols.

Set in Mexico in 1888, the movie spins off the stormy relationship between Sara Sandoval (Hayek), the prim, European-educated offspring of landed gentry, and Maria Alvarez (Cruz), a peasant farmer's daughter. The misfits are thrown together when some hired hands working for the railroad robber barons, led by a dandyish gunslinger with a seriously warped sense of humor (Yoakam), steal the women's land and murder their loved ones. Though they dislike each other at first, Sara and Maria reluctantly join forces to settle their scores, with the unexpected aid of a starchy Eastern railroad detective (Steve Zahn), whom they kidnap and treat as their boy toy.

In the end, Cruz's belching, off-color, seemingly not-too-swift farm girl is changed by her contact with Hayek's snooty, pampered aristocrat. The actresses say their friendship also has had a transforming effect.

"We really respect each other," Cruz says, "but if one asks a question to the other one, we know we're going to hear the truth. And I think that's why we are close friends and closer every day, because there's no B.S. in our relationship."

Hayek agrees. "I enjoy her. She's quite a character," she says of Cruz. "Other things that in other people would be neurotic or whatever, would be unbearable -- on her they're very graceful." Such as? Oh, dabbing up salt grains with little pieces of bread. Spilling the plots of TV serials. "She has this bad habit because she tells you the ending of every episode," Hayek says with feigned annoyance. Plus, Hayek says, "she's always talking on the phone, and I hate the phone."

"Bandidas" may help establish whether Hayek, 38, from Veracruz, Mexico, and Cruz, 30, a Madrid native, have attained the kind of star clout that translates into big opening-weekend box office and lucrative overseas sales. The critical consensus was that Hayek achieved an artistic breakthrough as Frida Kahlo in Julie Taymor's 2002 biopic. Cruz, who has made movies in at least three languages, was one of Europe's most popular and versatile young actresses years before the tabloids began drooling over her affair with Tom Cruise.

Los Angeles Times Articles