In late 19th century Mexico, gunfighters working for the Capitol Bank are seizing land that rightfully belongs to hardworking farmers. Sassy señorita Maria Alvarez (Penélope Cruz) -first seen playing tic-tac-toe with her super-intelligent horse! - and her father try to enlist help from the influential Don Diego (Ismael 'East' Carlo), but find him preoccupied with his independent-minded daughter, Sara Sandoval (Salma Hayek). When duplicitous gunman Tyler Jackson (Dwight Yoakam) shoots Maria’s father, and poisons Don Diego, a vengeful Sara sets out to rob the Capitol Bank, only to find Maria doing the same. Although far from friends, these brave bandidas unite for more daring robberies, returning the money to the Mexican people and becoming heroes along the way.
Although a modest hit in Spanish language territories, this Luc Besson production - co-scripted with his usual collaborator Robert Mark Kamen - was barely noticed in the USA and UK. Which suggests, in a curious paradox, that while people are happy to fantasise about Penélope Cruz and Salma Hayek together, they won’t pay money to see it. The story is as simplistic as a Disney movie - and even finds room for a comedy dog and horse - but surprisingly well scripted and good fun. It’s breezy, good-humoured tone recalls earlier “gals go west” romps like Cat Ballou (1965) and especially the Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale vehicle Les Pétroleuses a.k.a. The Legend of Frenchie King (1971), which must have been an influence.
Typically for a film scripted but not directed by Besson, this risks serving us frosting with no cake underneath, but includes several surprising jibes at American foreign policy (“Interesting how your country always justifies meddling in other people’s affairs”, quips Sara to one befuddled Yank) alongside witty gags and crowd-pleasing set-pieces like the stars’ cat-fight in church. As assembled by Norwegian directing duo, Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg, the film zips along at a fair clip but, aside from the climactic slow-mo bullet-fest, proves short on memorable action sequences. Things go off boil once Sara and Maria start lusting after nerdy forensic scientist Quentin Cooke (Steve Zahn), until he takes them to task as “two silly girls playing with the lives of thousands of people.” Thankfully, they prove him wrong and the “girl power” aspect gets back on track. Dwight Yoakam makes for a weak villain, but Sam Shepard is great fun as grizzled outlaw Bill Buck, who teaches them the outlaw way.
Confounding expectations, it’s Cruz who plays the hot-tempered sharpshooter, while Hayek essays the sophisticated, thoughtful one who hiccups whenever she holds a gun, but proves lethal with throwing knives. Indeed it is the gutsy leading ladies who linger longer in the memory than anything else on show. Need I mention they both look lovely in their cowgirl outfits, or the skimpy showgirl costumes they wear whilst straddling and molesting a naked Steve Zahn. The lucky son of a…