Regarding “Bandidas,” a nominal action-comedy that fails to provide either excitement or amusement, one is tempted to reference the old joke about the movie that was so bad, it wasn’t released — it escaped. Produced and co-written by Luc Besson, femme variation of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” received spotty international release in 2006, but has finally surfaced Stateside as, for all practical purposes, a direct-to-vid release. (Pic received fleeting domestic exposure last September through Cinema Latino theater chain.) Top-billed Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek gamely expose acres of cleavage, but even that may not be enough to lure buyers and renters.
Set in Mexico a hundred or so years ago, the scenario by Besson and frequent collaborator Robert Mark Kamen focuses on two sexy senoritas — Maria (Cruz), the cunning but uneducated daughter of a peasant farmer, and Sara (Hayek), the smart but spoiled child of a wealthy banker — who improbably evolve into bickering bank robbers.
They turn to crime impulsively, and none too competently, after a sinister gringo land-grabber (Dwight Yoakam) employed by U.S. business interests causes the death of Sara’s father and the near-fatal wounding of Maria’s dad. Maria sees bank robbery as a way to redistribute wealth to other dispossessed peasants. At first, however, Sara’s motives have more to do with personal revenge than revolutionary justice.
Even after Sara’s radicalization, the nuevas bandidas still need some help in honing their criminal skills. Fortunately, they’re able to locate a retired robber (Sam Shepard, in an effortlessly appealing cameo) who gives them a crash course in grand larceny. Better still, they’re able to persuade a brainy, buttoned-down criminologist (Steve Zahn) who’s on their trail to switch sides and provide assistance.
Pic devotes a great deal of time to catty sniping between the female leads, but the give-and-take is too often tedious. The only really funny scenes involve the running gag of competitive kissing, as the lovely ladies vie to perform the best lip-lock on the easily befuddled (but not entirely unresponsive) criminologist. For the record, Zahn comports himself with remarkable aplomb when his character is tied naked to a bed while the bandidas take turns smooching him.
Displaying similar professionalism, Hayek and Cruz give more to “Bandidas” than it ever gives them. Pic overall is curiously flat and uninvolving, but the leads try their best to bring sizzle to the fizzle. (Wipe that smile off your face — they remain at least partially clothed in every scene.) They’re graceful enough to suggest they could have handled far more physical comedy — a scene where they dive into a river from a great height is only the most obvious quote from “Butch and Sundance” — and they do much to make their inevitable friendship seem at least halfway believable. (Even so, they’re not likely to replace Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau in the hearts of those diehard fans who still think Louis Malle’s slightly similar “Viva Maria!” got a bum rap from critics back in 1965.)
Except for a climactic shootout aboard a train, co-directors Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg do little more than keep the actors from bumping into each other. Indeed, the thesps appear to have been left pretty much to their own devices: Yoakam visibly strains for over-the-top flamboyance (in black wig and mustache, he suggests a rather more butch Marilyn Manson) but remains doggedly earthbound.
Standout tech credits include attractive widescreen lensing of Mexico locations by Thierry Arbogast and a sporadically witty score by Eric Serra with hints of spaghetti-Western twanginess.