Machete, the Robert Rodriguez action massacre, was released into theatres recently. While it delivers plenty of sleaze and carnage, the movie also takes time to comment on the plight of illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States. Even the “Illegal” trailer from back in May took a stand on the issue. With that in mind, I thought this edition of Reel Rumbles could feature two movies about gringos who aren’t too welcome south of the border. In Bandidas, Mexican heroines Salma Hayek and Penélope Cruz take on a ruthless American interloper who is aggresively swindling people out of their land. Turistas involves naive white people vacationing in Brazil who become unwilling organ donors. Maybe the basic message of both Bandidas and Turistas is that other countries are not gringo playgrounds. You can’t just come around and act like you own the place, or there will be consequences. (Or, the message could also be that it never hurts to cast attractive actors and dress them up in sexy attire whenever possible.)
In Turistas , three Americans (Josh Duhamel, Olivia Wilde, Beau Garrett), two English guys (Desmond Askew, Max Brown) and an Australian woman (Melissa George) are stranded after their bus crashes. While at first they are distressed over the turn of events, their lot seems to improve once they discover an idyllic beach location nearby. However, as they frolic in the bikini paradise (there is no shortage of attractive bodies in revealing swimwear), the locals are shown to be planning something sinister for the nubile tourists. After an evening of gyrating to saucy music and heavy alcohol consumption, they wake up to discover that they’ve been drugged and all their valuables are missing. They confusedly wander around trying to find help, encountering hostility at a local village. Eventually, a native they befriended earlier offers to guide them to a “safe” house in the jungle. What awaits them, though, is a mad doctor with an humanitarian bent who intends to harvest their organs for donation to a hospital in Rio. By his reasoning, the gringos have been exploiting Brazil for centuries, so it’s time for some payback.
Bandidas is one of those Odd Couple Buddy Movie Westerns, with Salma Hayek as a spoiled banker’s daughter and Penélope Cruz as an idealistic peasant. What brings them together is the dastardly American villain (Dwight Yoakam), who intends to steal Mexican land in order to build a railroad. Not only that, he makes it personal by inflicting harm on both of their fathers. Because the bad guys have seized the banks, Hayek and Cruz go on a bank robbing spree in order to help the displaced people who were finagled out of their property. An American detective (Steve Zahn) is added to the mix when he is called in to apprehend the pulchritudinous pair of pistoleras. Instead, he ends up joining their cause after realizing Yoakam’s despicable scheme. Together, they seek to right the wrongs set in motion by the evildoers, while learning something about life and friendship along the way.
Turistas doesn’t really have much of a story. It’s pretty much the same set up as Hostel, but with more bikinis. Of course, most people will probably watch Turistas for titillation and evisceration purposes, rather than for its original storytelling. Still, the familiar structure where characters are introduced and then herded toward a gruesome demise can become a tad stale. The story in Bandidas is a bit more dynamic, providing a greater opportunity for meaningful interplay between characters and a dramatic payoff. The relationship between Hayek and Cruz actually has a purpose, and their motivations are a little deeper than simply not wanting to die an horrific death.
The villains supply the conflict that fuels both movies. In Bandidas, Dwight Yoakam’s character is pretty much the evil personification of the Ugly American stereotype. His hubris and callous disregard for the people of Mexico doesn’t require a whole lot of interpretation when determining his status as the bad guy. The villain in Turistas, though, is a little more complicated. His odious deeds are a reaction to what Ugly Americans and other foreigners have been doing to his country. He has become so contemptuous of “lily white” outsiders and their exploitation of his people that he has no qualms about stealing their vital organs. Both villains have an ethnocentric outlook, though Yoakam’s character seems to be motivated by concrete greed, while the doctor acts more out of abstract vengeance.
It is true that Hayek and Cruz in Bandidas and the doctor in Turistas are both reacting against exploitative gringos. However, the villain in Banditas is an indisputable scoundrel and threat to the well-being of many innocent Mexicans. The victims in Turistas are not portrayed as being a threat to anyone, and likely have no intention of causing trouble. They just happen to be part of a very broad group of people that the villain despises, and are therefor guilty by association. (It should be noted, though, that the protagonists in Turistas appear to represent tourist stereotypes. The Australian is a cultural butterfly who prides herself on travelling to dangerous locales, the Englishmen are horndogs in search of Brazilian models, the American guy is constantly complaining about everything… So they might be guilty of obnoxiousness, if nothing else.)
So, while Bandidas takes a Black & White, Good vs. Evil approach to the characters, Turistas hovers more in the grey area. Yes, the mad doctor in Turistas is a murderer, but he does it for his people. Though, there are parts of the movie that imply that the doctor doesn’t view all Brazilians equally. Some of his henchmen are poor Indians who he is shown treating harshly a few times (he stabs one in the eyeball and calls another “worthless”). Perhaps some sort of commentary was intended by including those parts in the movie, but they culminate in a forced and abrupt manner at the end. Bandidas also incorporates class issues into the story, but more effectively. The initial source of conflict between the protagonists is due to Hayek’s character being wealthy with an European education and Cruz’s character being poor and uneducated. Much of their character development involves finding common ground and learning from each other’s experiences. The doctor in Turistas only uses his henchmen as a means to an end. (At one point, the movie makes a comparison between the doctor and a Nazi on the television show Hogan’s Heroes, so draw your own conclusions.)
Anyway, I figure Bandidas has a more character-driven script, while Turistas is more plot-driven. The interaction between Salma Hayek and Penélope Cruz is what matters, and the viewer has to care about them for the story to work. With Turistas, the protagonists as characters are less important than their role in moving the action along. The mad doctor is actually more significant as a character, because he’s the one pulling the strings. The evil American in Bandidas may instigate the conflict, but all the other characters play an active role in opposing him. There are also much greater, concrete consequences if Hayek and Cruz fail to defeat Yoakam, both on a personal and broader level. The protagonists in Turistas are just victims that wander into the villain’s trap. Because he is evil, there is a need for someone to defeat him, but it doesn’t really matter who. So, yeah, Bandidas creates a stronger feeling of urgency and purpose behind the actions of the protagonists.
In Turistas, much of the acting is probably done by the skimpy bikinis. Now, I don’t want to imply that Melissa George and the other actresses fail to create life-like characters who elicit the viewer’s sympathy. But, I feel that the bikinis should be praised for putting on a really stellar show up until when the eviscerations commence. Overall, I suppose everyone interpreted their roles sufficiently, though not all the performers were given much to work with. Beau Garrett in particular doesn’t really get to do much but look good for the camera. Out of the two English guys, Desmond Askew pretty much never shuts up throughout most of the movie, while Max Brown is given only slightly more purpose than Garrett. Toward the end, most of the performances cease to matter all that much, anyway.
In all fairness, I will admit that Bandidas relies heavily on eye candy as well (Hayek and Cruz are hot, if you hadn’t noticed). A big difference, though, is that the actors are given more opportunities to shine in Bandidas than in Turistas. I don’t know if there are a lot of people out there who consider the actors in Turistas to be more talented or charismatic overall than the ones in Bandidas, anyway. Would, say, Melissa George and Olivia Wilde be able to take on the main roles in Bandidas with as much pizazz? I really doubt it. Or would Desmond Askew fill Steve Zahn’s role as admirably? I think the bottom line here is that no one from Turistas would be more entertaining to watch than the performers who were cast in Bandidas. At least, that’s my assertion.
(NOTE: I’m still not entirely sure about how I feel about Dwight Yoakam as the villain in Bandidas. I guess he’s OK, but I’m not a big fan. Miguel Lunardi was fairly menacing as the mad doctor in Turistas. I don’t think Dwight Yoakam could’ve done it better.)
If I look at Turistas and Bandidas each as an artistic statement, which statement do I most agree with? The director is the person who has to form all the elements of the movie together into one coherent work of creative vision. So, who has the better vision?
To be honest, I’m not familiar with the other movies of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, the directing team behind Bandidas, or John Stockwell, director of Turistas. Well, actually, I do know that John Stockwell is no stranger to movies involving bikinis and water, because he also directed Into the Blue and Blue Crush. I can say that his command of the bikini action in Turistas was nothing short of masterful, and I feel compelled to check out his other bikini-centric movies as a result. So that counts for something.
What really happens in Turistas, though, that indicates some sort of grand artistic vision? There’s the scenes of partying on the beach, and then there’s the scenes of walking through the jungle, and there’s the part with the evisceration… I guess John Stockwell keeps things moving at a decent pace for the most part. Well, that is until we get to the scenes in the cavern. There’s a chase at the end that involves swimming around in a cavern that seems to go on forever. The cavern is introduced earlier in the movie when the protagonists go swimming at a waterfall, which is a scene I don’t mind. Watching attractive women swimming in bikinis is generally OK, even if it has nothing to do with advancing the plot. Unfortunately, the surviving protagonists return to the cavern later while fleeing the villains, and this time there are no bikinis. And it’s so dark that I can barely figure out who’s doing what. The whole climax just goes to crap. John Stockwell must be the guy to blame for this. He’s supposed to be in charge, after all.
True, the train robbery at the end of Bandidas wasn’t as impressively staged as I would’ve liked, and the shootout with Dwight Yoakam was kind of lame… but at least I could tell what the hell was going on! Yeah, Joachim and Espen surely never dropped the ball as heinously as John Stockwell.
It finally occured to me that I only truly like Turistas for the bikinis. Bandidas, as it turned out, actually has real movie qualities that are distinguishably superior to Turistas. Salma Hayek and Penélope Cruz are icing on the cake.
Bandidas - UNANIMOUS DECISION