RECAP: Bandidas

Bandidas (2006): Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg

Are you eager for a comedy western starring two women? I present to you Bandidas.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: American banks buy out Mexican banks to gather land for a railroad passing through Mexico, but two women wronged by the banks rob them for revenge. 

Hero (8/10)

Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek play two Mexican women on the wrong side of the law, first because of circumstances beyond their control, and then by their choice.

Cruz and Hayek play Maria Alvarez and Sara Sandoval, respectively, and the two couldn’t be more different. Maria is a farmer’s girl, a woman who can’t count very well, and reacts immediately to everything in her life. Sara is the daughter of a prominent banker, has lived mostly in Europe, and calculates all her life’s moves.

As soon as these two meet they are at each other’s throats. Granted, Maria did sneak into Sara’s house by climbing over a wall and then snootily dismissing Sara’s appearance. It’s as if they know they are different on sight.

Salma Hayek and Penélope Cruz

Whereas Sara can beat her father at chess while conversing with another person, Maria loses tic-tac-toe to her horse. (The horse is damn smart, though, as we’ll learn.) “I was raised to be a spoiled lady,” Sara says. Whereas Maria is dressed like a milkmaid, Sara wears Europe’s finest clothes and parades in her courtyard on a horse.

Their paths cross again quickly after a nefarious character named Tyler Jackson (Dwight Yoakam), working for a fancy pants New York City, bank kills Sara’s father and nearly kills Maria’s. The two run away from their respective homes and decide to act against the banks responsible for ruining their lives.

The women start their bank robbing spree by coincidentally robbing the same bank in their town. Sara, enraged at Jackson and her father’s death, heads to the bank to rob it, only to find it currently being robbed by Maria, who tells her to “find another one.” They find time to discuss bank robbing fashions.

They complete the robbery and leave behind land sale records showing the owners selling their properties for a single peso to Jackson, who killed most of the owners anyway.

After this robbery, the two are arguing again, this time with slaps and hair pulls, over what to do with the money. They lay out their motivations: Maria wants to help those wronged by the banks, Sara wants revenge and to take the money with her back to Europe. After the fight and a trip to local caves, where most of the evicted townsfolk are living, Sara says, “I think we should rob more banks.”

So they do. Nine more banks are part of the chain of banks purchased by the Americans. Maria and Sara bicker their way through the robberies, each relying on their very particular sets of skills. The funniest line of the movie comes from Sara, when asked what she will use to rob banks. “My education,” she answers. Maria will use her expert shooting skill.

Cruz and Hayek have crackling chemistry; it’s easy to see they are friends in real life. Their interplay elevates Bandidas from sparse western to memorable, bubbly western comedy. These characters hate each other, and it shows in every scene. When specifically asked not to argue, they argue about not arguing. Great buddy comedies are made from mismatched pairs, and Bandidas is an exemplar.

Their story takes a turn when crime scene investigator Quentin (Steve Zahn) arrives. Maria and Sara need information from him, and they choose to extract it using sex appeal. Both women, constantly competing, try to make each other jealous by kissing Quentin. It’s here we learn that Maria has never kissed a man before.

They use Quentin as a sexual toy, for kissing practice and, in one scene, so Sara can calm her nerves. They argue later, of course, about kissing, even when in a police coach on their way to being hanged.

Their bickering doesn’t prevent them from robbing banks increasingly better protected. It doesn’t prevent them from respecting each other. In the end, they overcome their differences and become friends.

Villain (3/10)

Tyler Jackson is either an outlaw posing as a bank representative, or he’s a cast out member of Korn. You be the judge:

Outlaw or failed bass player?

Jackson makes no bones about his villainy. He rides to several properties in the area whose owners have let their land fall into arrears. The law allows Jackson to buy back land for a peso. Instead of that he tends to kill them and take the land over their dead bodies.

One of those dead bodies belongs to Sara’s father, who also ran one of the local banks, a bank that now belongs to Jackson. Jackson says that all that belonged to him now belongs to Jackson, which seems…bullshit.

Or maybe not, because Jackson has big plans. Killing people to ease their sale to a bank is not hard on his heart. How about stealing an entire nation’s gold? Not a problem.

Jackson seizes an opportunity to seize a train car load of gold after the banks he oversees are robbed by Maria and Sara. He’s a slimy son of a bitch, but an opportunistic one.

Action/Effects (5/10)

After the ladies easily rob five banks, their faces are all over the area and $25,000 is the reward for capturing them. The remaining banks Jackson controls are under heavy guard, but these women have a mission and won’t let that stop them.

With everyone looking for two women, Maria dresses as a new bride and drags Quentin to the next bank, under the guise of depositing their jewelry in the safe. Sara, meanwhile, avoids the guards by riding her horse up a ladder and across neighboring roofs.

The bank manager shows some of the bank’s security features. The handful of armed guards are not mentioned, because they are obvious. Maria asks to see the safe. The bank manager refuses, but he changes his mind when she holds a shotgun on him and flees without opening the safe.

The robbers first team up while trying to individually rob the same bank.

Maria shoots two men dead and with three other shots she causes the windows and doors to latch shut. That’s effective shooting. Quentin uses his stethoscope to listen for the clicks and clacks to crack the safe.

Maria doesn’t wait for the next part of the plan. She lights three sticks of dynamite and throws the bundle onto the candelabra hanging from the ceiling. Twice the explosives fall back to the ground before she gets it in the right spot. Better hurry too, because the guards outside are blasting away at the doors blocking them. Squibs inside are blasting everything.

Speaking of blasting, the dynamite explodes a hole in the roof, and the blast is shown from a half mile away. It knocks back all the guards outside, perhaps killing some. A fireball bursts from the entire building, but Maria and Quentin took refuge inside the safe.

Maria is capable with both shotgun and fake wedding dress.

Any western worth its salt better have a lot of bullets fired, and Bandidas delivers primarily during this robbery. The women rob several banks, but only in this one do they shoot it out. Their enemies are better armed and more numerous, but enough training sequences allow us to witness Maria’s expert shooting.

Sidekicks (6/8)

Sam Shepard plays as classic and as obvious a sidekick mentor as you’ll see in a movie. He plays Buck, a man who successfully robbed 37 banks in Texas and got away with them all.

The women visit Buck hoping he will train them to rob banks. At first he won’t, but then he does, because he’s a softie and he has nothing better to do.

Buck drops pearls of wisdom during a training montage. He has them do push-ups in a creek. He tells them, “Robbing banks is easy. Getting away is the hard part.” He gives them three rules of bank robbing, and the third rule is: “Getting away is the first rule.”

***

Maria and Sara snare the scientist Quentin into their plot after he arrives to investigate their initial robbery. His first act in town is falling off the train. So yeah, he’s a bit of a buffoon, but he knows his stuff. He opens the movie by acing his investigator’s exam, and in a day on the job he’s deduced that Sara’s father was poisoned.

The women visit Quentin at a saloon and convince him with blackmail to divulge information about Sara’s father, and from then he falls into their orbit.

The ladies win over Quentin

It’s hard to tell if Quentin helps Sara and Maria more through scientific skills or as lip fodder, as both women use him to practice kissing and to make the other jealous. Turns out he’s not bad at kissing.

Quentin makes a strange, sad choice in the end, which I’ll get to.

Henchmen (0/8)

Jackson has several wordless guards help him menace the locality, but they really are fodder for killing, outsmarting, and knocking out.

Stunts (2/6)

A second major robbery occurs after the explosive safe crack. Jackson has moved much money into a new vault security system that is wired for pressure. If anyone steps on the floor, an alarm is immediately triggered.

The guy who installed the system is a fan of Sara’s, and he brings her the room’s blueprints. From there it’s easy to learn that a one-inch gap between floorboards is not wired for weight. If only humans had feet one inch wide.

Fast forward to the heist. This bank is guarded well outside. Quentin solves part of the problem with knockout darts he fashioned from Amazonian poisons. Maria shoots two darts from a blowgun into two of the guards, knocking them out immediately.

Fake hostage: one of several methods Sara and Maria use to rob banks.

Now comes the entry plan. Ziplines! A grappling hook sets up a rope to slide across from the one roof to the bank’s balcony. Sara easily slides across while Quentin struggles and is nearly discovered because Maria’s horse is horny. (Just go with it.) As the rope droops lower, it is accompanied by a guard tuning his banjo. Solid musical overlay as the player finds his strings out of tune when the rope lowers and in tune as the rope rises.

Quentin enters the bank and joins Sara, who is nervous. She’s using her education, sort of, to rob this bank. Humans don’t have narrow feet, but you know what does? Ice skates. Sara wobbles on her ice skates as they slide between the floorboards. Hayek busts out some great physical acting here, using a pole for balance as she shuffles toward the safe, sneezes, and puffs hair out of her face.

Sara steals the cash, stuffing it in her dress, but outside new guards discover the darted ones, sound the alarm, and easily capture the three robbers. They forgot Rule No. 3: Getting away is the first rule.

Other light stunt work accompanies many scenes. The stunts always serve the movie’s comedic angle, so don’t expect ripping train chase scenes.

Climax (4/6)

With all the hubbub Sara and Maria create, Jackson has major heat on him, especially from the local governor, to protect the money. Jackson hatches a plan to move the government’s gold to a bank branch in Texas. All the remaining gold is loaded onto a train steaming north to the US.

Sara and Maria prepare their final act of vengeance. They know this will be their final job, regardless of outcome. “It’s been good to have you as a partner,” Maria says. “It’s been good to have you as a friend,” Sara counters.

The governor, Jackson, the American bank manager and his daughter, who is also Quentin’s fiance, are aboard the train, along with a small contingent of guards.

Sara, Maria, and Quentin join the moving train by sneaking up through the toilet, a smart, disgusting way to enter a train. Who would ever expect that? Luckily the toilet seemed unused at time of entry.

They easily decouple a train car full of guards and send it along a separate track, thanks to some on-the-ground assistance. Jackson, meanwhile, kicks the governor off the train. Looks like he’s decoupling from his partnership with the American banking system. “Well I guess he fell off the train,” he remarks when asked about the governor’s location.

The bank-turned-train robbers enter the car, where they find Jackson about to kill the bank president. Quentin, who disguises his voice so his woman won’t recognize it, and the ladies force Jackson to drop his guns. When he asks them how they plan to rob the train, they answer simultaneously, “The scientific method.” These ladies are witty.

A brief distraction provides Jackson room to act. A slow motion sequence details the action. Jackson picks up his gun. Sara throws a knife between two people. The knife strikes Jackson’s hat as he fires, and the bullet strikes Quentin’s arm.

Quentin tackles Maria for some reason, maybe to protect her? But she’s the best shooter in the room. It was a foolish mistake that nearly got him killed. Maria shoots anyway, but her aim is compromised.

Jackson grabs a table to shield himself from Sara’s thrown knives. All of this is still in slow motion. Jackson drives the table into Sara and escapes to the next car, the gold car, which he decouples from the moving train.

Why Jackson would do this seems foolish. He’s operating in enemy territory, and needs to reach the US. He effectively ends his chances at success.

Sara and Maria leap to the car and enter the armored car, where they have already disabled the two guards. They trade shots with Jackson, and Maria suddenly can’t hit anything.

Jackson is cornered and out-manned, so he seizes an escape chance when a side door opens and he finds his horse running beside it. He leaps on it and gallops away.

Thing is, Maria’s horse controls other horses, and it neighs Jackson’s horse to a stop. When a bar of gold flies up and lands on Jackson’s head, it knocks him out cold.

Sara and Maria find Jackson face down in the sand. They contemplate shooting him. “If I do that,” Sara says, who has the most cause to kill the man who killed her father, “it makes me no better than him.”

I disagree. Jackson killed people for profit; Sara would do it for revenge and to protect Mexico from his dastardly deeds. Besides, Jackson’s men have already died from their actions.

Jackson wakes up and draws a small pistol. Maria, always first to act, pulls the trigger. Her gun’s empty. She never was good with numbers.

A gunshot rings out. Sara has finally, successfully shot her target. A cool image shows Jackson’s spur rolling to a stop.

Now the women must see about Quentin. His fiance is very excited that he’s saved the day. She kisses him, and it’s pretty good. But Quentin does not stay in Mexico. What was he thinking? I was sure he’d dump his woman. Whatever his fiance’s charms, she ain’t Penelope Cruz, bank robber extraordinaire. Instead he stays on the train as it chugs away.

Well, that leaves Sara and Maria stuck with each other. Maria is glum; she’s got plenty on her mind now. “You should be very grateful that now your brain is thinking,” Sara says.

As they ride into the sunset (it’s a western), Maria smirks and asks Sara, “How are the banks in Europe?”

“Bigger.”

Jokes (4/4)

Easily the movie’s best joke is Sara planning to use her education to rob banks. Also her hiccuping, which pops up when she’s nervous. I can’t remember ever hearing a movie character hiccup.

Maria’s strongest skill is her Dr. Doolittle-esque ability to speak to her horse. She can whistle to it, and the horse can use its neighs to command other horses. This happens several times. The horse knows exactly what Maria wants it to do, evidenced during a robbery when the horse loosens the ropes tying the guards’ horses.

Bandidas is packed with light humor. The energy between the stars drives the movie and makes the jokes land. They find every opportunity to claw at each other, verbally and physically. When Buck tells them his only condition for teaching them is that they not argue, they start arguing.

I’d argue that the humor is the movie’s strongest aspect and the chief reason to watch it, unless you’ve always wanted to see Steve Zahn’s ass, in which case that is the top reason, because it’s there, and it’s not bad.

Setting (2/4)

Shot primarily in Mexico, Bandidas spend plenty of time in the sprawling, mountain-backed grasslands of the country. No western can escape book-cover-class locations, and this movie leans into them.

Many characters live in shacks perched in the middle of gorgeous landscapes, the kind of places where you want to be outside and not in.

Durango, Mexico provided exteriors for several scenes. More than 110 movies, including several John Wayne westerns, were shot in Durango, a good city then and is now.

Commentary (0/2)

The villain, Jackson, is a typical outlaw interested in robbery, but he coats himself with the protection of an American bank, an aspect missing from many westerns. I don’t know if banks were kicking people off their land in Mexico to build a railroad, and I didn’t bother to find out.

This century’s westerns are throwbacks to the genre’s heyday, but is there any point to them any more? The movies are short, a smart idea, and mostly revenge capers or outlaw paeans. These days they seem to be excuses to travel to gorgeous rocky locations and showcase a shoot out or two. That’s fine with me.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

Jackson throws around “bitch” a couple times to describe Sara and Maria, but he’s bad so we expect that.

The amount of cleavage on display increases as the movie progresses. During the first act I thought how progressive the filmmakers were in covering up the famous decolletage of Salma Hayek. Well, I lost that idea when the ladies visited Steve Zahn in pilfered burlesque costumes and sat on his naked groin.

Others

  • There’s a reverse Bechdel test when Sara first appears onscreen: two men talk to each other about her.
  • I loved the idea that Penelope Cruz is not only a virgin, but has never kissed a man before.

Summary (33/68): 49%

Let Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz, two of Hollywood’s and most accomplished Spanish-speaking actors, divert your attention for a while. I find it strange that this small movie required two directors, the same number as Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, movies that have more than 50 named characters and a plot that spans the galaxy, and employs Robert Downey, Jr.