BANDIDAS: Two Silly Girls Playing with the Lives of Thousands of People

Bandidas (2006) – Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg – Starring Penélope Cruz, Salma Hayek, Steve Zahn, Dwight Yoakam, José María Negri, and Sam Shepard.

BANDIDAS is the kind of Western which non-ironically presents Penélope Cruz’s Maria Alvarez as a farm girl who looks like she just walked off the set of a Vogue photo shoot.

And I really can’t say I minded one bit.

BANDIDAS is a pure popcorn movie, filled with plenty of laughs and non-consequential violence. It’s the kind of movie you first roll your eyes at and then later laugh along with as the sheer likableness of Cruz and Salma Hayek’s performances and the oily obviousness of Dwight Yoakam’s bad guy. The film provides just enough story to justify all of the action, but this film exists to watch Cruz and Hayek play off each other, with some solid guest shots from Sam Shepard as the grizzled cowboy, José María Negri as the supportive priest, and Steve Zahn as Steve Zahn.

Sara Sandoval (Hayek) is a pampered rich girl, the daughter of the bank owner who’s been educated in Europe. María Álvarez (Cruz) is the virginal, tomboy farm girl, the daughter of a man who can’t repay his bank loans. Tyler Jackson (Yoakam) is the tough guy representative from the Bank of New York, in town to secure enough land so the American bank can own all the land on the proposed railroad tracks that are soon to be laid down. Jackson gets the appropriate paperwork signed and kills Sara’s dad, then goes out and shoots all the landowners (including Maria’s dad) just to show you he’s a really bad guy despite looking like Dwight Yoakam decided he wanted to go out as Captain Jack Sparrow for Halloween, but then he heard Dirks Bentley, Waylon Jennings, Tim McGraw, and the Ghost of Minnie Pearl were going to the same party as Jack, so he decided to toss on a cowboy outfit and tell everyone he was the Undertaker during his Chubby Biker phase.

The two women hate each other but, on their own, get the same idea – to rob the town’s bank. Maria wants to steal the money to help people eat and reclaim their land while Sara wants to buy transport back to Europe. They have a girl fight in the town’s church, but then the priest takes them to see where all of the displaced landowners have holed up and the two women decide to team up, rob banks, and continue to girl fight with one another.

BANDIDAS is going to succeed or fail totally because of how much you like the chemistry between Hayek and Cruz. For me, it works well enough, the two women delivering plenty of smiles with their feuding cowgirls routine. Being the educated snob, Hayek’s character carries the biggest part of the humor, as Sara doesn’t know how to shoot, spends time by the campfire brushing out her hair, and at one point whines, “One minute I think I have all the answers, the next I’m crying for a manicure!”

Hannie Caulder, she ain’t.

Maria is the more practical of the two – being raised on a farm she’s been taught how to shoot and she’s committed to the cause right from the start. In order to give her character something for the audience to laugh at, they reveal halfway through the movie that she’s not only a virgin, but doesn’t even know how to kiss a guy properly. We find this out while Maria and Sara are dressed as strippers or showgirls and interrogating Quentin Cooke (Zahn), an expert investigator sent by the Bank of New York to investigate the goings-on down in Mexico.

Now, I know Cruz, Hayek, and Zahn are all professionals, and it couldn’t have been easy for Zahn to spend most of the scene tied to the bed, but somehow I think being used as a kissing dummy for Cruz and Hayek, dressed in hot pink and fishnets, wasn’t his worst day of filming ever.

Cooke discovers that Sara’s father was murdered and he joins their cause, the three of them robbing banks and helping out the common folks who’ve been screwed by the bank. Zahn is very good playing his signature nerdy, funny, affable role and helps the Bandidas elude capture. The women turn Cooke into their new battleground, as first Maria and then Sara kiss him during their role-playing bank robbery phase.

BANDIDAS is much more comedy than action, with only a few action pieces bringing anything to the film; even then they primarily serve the comedy. Sam Shepard is fun as Bill Buck, the grizzled ex-bank robber who puts the women through their training paces, which leads to them bonding as partners, if not friends. i kept waiting for Buck to reappear in the film, but he never does. The film does a good job of letting each woman retain her agency; even though there’s plenty of cleavage shots (both women exude a playful sexuality throughout the film – they don’t go for the smoldering sexuality of Claudia Cardinale’s Maria in The Professionals), and even though they fight over Cooke, and even though Maria is genuinely hurt when Cooke returns with his fiance to America at the end of the film, these are women who do what they want, when they want. They make their own paths and ultimately define themselves by what they’ve accomplished, not by who they were, which was largely dependent on the men in their lives.

There’s a set-up for a sequel, but since the movie did junk at the box office, I’d be surprised if we ever see it. There’s a bit of something odd about the sequel set-up, though. As the two women struggle for what to do now that this adventure is over, Maria asks Sara what the banks in Europe are like. “Bigger,” Sara grins, and the two women ride off together. In BANDIDAS, the women’s decision to rob the banks is justified by the actions of Jackson, but the implication of Maria’s question and Sara’s smile is that they like playing outlaw. It’s certainly possible that they can go overseas and still play Robin Hood, but there’s no hint here of them wanting to do anything other than playing the bad girls.

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