The DVD Journal | Quick Reviews: Old Gringo
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Old Gringo

In the case of American authors, not many come as cool as Ambrose Bierce. The world-class cynic, philosopher, and humorist best known for The Devil's Dictionary led a life of almost ridiculous realness. His one-time employer William Randolph Hearst, after boasting about his collections of art and other valuable things, asked Bierce what he collected. The crusty man answered: "I collect words. And ideas. Like you, I also store them. But in the reservoir of my mind. I can take them out and display them at a moment's notice. Eminently portable, Mr. Hearst. And I don't find it necessary to show them all at the same time." Yes! With his oft-quoted musings, his bullshit-detector on Hearst (and just about everything else), and his weird disappearance — when he rode horseback into the Mexican desert to join Pancho Villa, never to be seen again — Bierce is the perfect subject for a movie. It's just too bad he ends up in the 1989 dud Old Gringo. Adapted from the critically acclaimed novel by Carlos Fuentes, the film has bored spinster Harriet Winslow (Jane Fonda, who also produced the picture) breaking free of her 1912 post-Victorian life and running off to Mexico as a governess. But it's bad timing on her part, as once she gets there she realizes she's in the middle of the Mexican revolution. No bother — all the more reason to rev up a hot and heavy romance with revolutionary General Arroyo (Jimmy Smits) and befriend a curmudgeonly old white man (the "Old Gringo" of the title), played by Gregory Peck. That Gringo is Ambrose Bierce, who in this poetic licensing, has ventured to Mexico to search for death. Harriet gets attached to the witty old man, but she never knows who he is until near the end of the story. And on that note, it's a wonder if much of the audience knew why he was significant in the first place. Pardon the snobbery, but there were probably many a moviegoer who had no idea who Bierce was, and sadly, Old Gringo needed to dumb things down a bit; the mysterious Bierce angle just doesn't work, especially since the film remains pretty dumb on its own, and chiefly because nothing really happens. There's a lot of crowd scenes (a lot). People dance, or engage in battle, or both, sometimes looking like a cheap section of Disneyland based on Pancho Villa. The drama between all the characters is uniformly tepid — one wishes Old Gringo would just go all out as a bodice-ripper involving sex-starved Fonda and the virile Smits, or just simply be a picture about Ambrose Bierce. Director Luis Puenzo doesn't display much visual panache, and he seems both timid and flat-footed with his material. And though the iconic Peck does a nice, stately job, there could have been other actors more suitable for Bierce (Paul Newman? Dennis Hopper? Anthony Hopkins? An aged Sam Elliot?) — someone more believably bitter. Had Bierce been alive when Old Gringo was released, he could have utilized his famous quote: "Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret." Only this time, Bierce wouldn't regret it. Columbia TriStar presents a nice transfer of this film in both anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) and full-frame (1.33:1), complementing the endless scenes of extras. Audio comes in Dolby Digital 4.0, which isn't bad for any film involving gunfire. Supplements include an array of subtitles and theatrical trailers for Legends of the Fall and the knock-out preview for The Mask of Zorro. And why not Antonio Banderas in Old Gringo? There's some good bodice-ripping. Keep-case.
—Kim Morgan



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