Thursday, April 26, 2012

No, Bandidas Is Not A Latina Bound . . .

The Good: Generally good acting, Social messages
The Bad: Straightforward plot, Penelope Cruz, Characters are all "types"
The Basics: With Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz playing "types" in a Hispanosploitation buddy movie, the viewer is mildly entertained if one does not think of the implications.

Recently, on an episode of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (reviewed here!), one of the characters makes a comment on white people and a woman in the room looks offended and says, "I'm not white, I'm English!" Darius laughs at that and tells her, "I've got to use that." In a society obsessed with dividing people up by "ethnic groups," especially based on skin color, such distinctions as "white" vs. "English" seem funny or esoteric. Similarly, to most people who aren't of the ethnicity, the distinction between "Latino" and "Hispanic" is not immediately apparent. It's a whole silly way of identifying people. Ever consider just how silly grouping people by skin color is, as opposed to say hair color or eye color? It's all reductive, grouping individuals together by a single common trait. I begin with this because I do not wish to offend anyone with my use (possibly coining) of the term "hispanosploitation." Is Bandidas the harbinger of the hispanosploitation film?

When Mexican landowners are being killed by Americans to build a railroad for wealthy investors, two young women, Sara and Maria strike back. Sara, an elite, is the daughter of the bank's owner and is motivated by revenge when her father is killed. Maria, a commoner, is lost in a male-dominated society when her father is killed and she seizes the opportunity to rob banks to save Mexico from the invading Americans. Aided by a forensic scientist, Quentin, the pair robs banks and works to uncover the robbing of their land.

The term "guilty pleasure" is elitist, implying that a work being mostly "fun" is somehow worth less than a serious, presumably higher quality endeavor. Bandidas is not so much a potential guilty pleasure - for those who would feel guilt at watching Salma Hayek run around for an hour and a half - as it is a weird Hispanosploitation endeavor. In the 70s, Blacksploitation movies sprouted up with strong black protagonists who almost universally overcame the (white) Man to do good by the black community. Almost everything was framed in ethnic terms, production values often were lower giving the films a camp quality and the overwhelming social message from them ultimately became, "We can make crappy movies, too, but, hey! we're all the same." It's a good message. It's a questionable medium.

As a potential Hispanosploitation film, Bandidas has all the critical elements. The protagonists Maria and Sara embody the cultural heritage of the different strata of the culture they seek to represent. Maria represents the strong working class drive to preserve cultural heritage and overcome outside influence, Sara represents the one who plays within the dominant (or dominating) system until it hits her personally and she uses her knowledge of that system to overcome it with her newfound rebirth cultural identity. Ultimately, Maria and Sara are simply types, not actual characters.

And in that way, Bandidas plays it way too safe, even as a quasi-hispanosploitation film. In order to achieve their goals, Maria and Sara must rely on white men. Quentin, once convinced to aid their cause, essentially becomes the brains of the operation. In order to start robbing banks, the pair seeks out Jackson, who was a successful bank robber. The point here is that if Bandidas is a Hispanosploitation film, it's trapped within the framework it seeks to challenge. Maria and Sara do not succeed based on their own skills, cultural pride and Woman Power, they become a force because they are mentored by a man who teaches them and aided by a man who is superior to Sara. In short, Maria's skill is force and she is inferior to Jackson, Sara's skill is education and hers is inferior to Quentin. They need the men to succeed.

That's too bad, though I guess it shows that we're all the same. Or, more likely, it reinforces The Way Things Are (i.e. "stay in your place") as opposed to The Way Things Should Be. A far better example of this is Bound (review here!). In Bound, two strong women - relying only on one another - team up and take on the mob. If it were to be considered lesbosploitation (I think it's deeper than that), at least the heroines prove their worth based on their own merits. In Bandidas, that is not the case.

In fact, the more I write about this, the less I like the implications of the movie. Sure, it's a fun movie. I was expecting it to be completely campy and dumb. While watching it, though, it was easy to get into. If one is not thinking of the bigger picture societal messages involved, it's probably a much better film. If one thinks about how the Latino/Hispanic vote is being courted - especially by the Christian Coalition - Bandidas carries a much more insidious message, which one might suggest is "If you want power in our society, you need us to get it." That's a terrible message.

Truth be told, this movie is not as bad as Shark Tale (reviewed here!) (if you want racism, there's a great example!). So, I can understand why Salma Hayek (whose work I respect) took the job. Sara is a fairly strong female character. I always understand why Penelope Cruz takes work (I'm not a fan of her work), so that she is playing an archetype of ignorance doesn't so much bother me. Cruz continues her pattern - in movies I've seen her in - of flat-affect performing that is passionless and uninspired.

It is Steve Zahn who becomes enjoyable to watch in Bandidas. While Sara and Maria descend into terribly stereotypical catfighting, Zahn as Quentin becomes a voice of reason uniting the two sides. Zahn mixes reason and comic presentation to create a character that keeps the movie moving.

Salma Hayek gives a good performance, working well within the role written for her. She's always fun to watch. I enjoyed her more in Ask The Dust, but here she does an adequate job as well.

If this is the harbinger of a new cinematic movement, one hopes that those it is geared toward - primarily the Latino and Hispanic communities - will ask for more. Get real heroes who can overcome without depending on those they are building cultural identity to overcome. An occasionally fun, but thoroughly predictable movie, Bandidas is rainy Saturday material. If you want a serious, better alternative, Bound is it.

For other movies starring Penelope Cruz, check out my reviews of:
Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Vanilla Sky
All The Pretty Horses
Woman On Top


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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