Twenty-five years after they memorably teamed for the epic “Lonesome Dove” miniseries, Robert Duvall and screenwriter Bill Wittliff have reunited for a much smaller-scale project: “A Night in Old Mexico,” a Tex-Mex-flavored shaggy-dog story that finds Duvall perfectly cast as a robustly cantankerous South Texas rancher determined to have one last fling south of the border. The film’s winning mix of broad humor, gruff sentiment and seriocomic caper-scenario elements should play best with an older demographic, although respectful reviews and favorable word of mouth could expand its appeal. North American theatrical and VOD rollout is set for May 13.
Making the absolute most of a vividly written role that fits him like a well-worn pair of boots, Duvall moseys through the proceedings at a deliberate but determined gait as Red Bovie, an aged cattle rancher who’s seriously peeved because the bank has seized his property, and plans to divide it into “ranchettes.”
Red takes one hard, horrified look at the cramped trailer home where he’s supposed to spend his remaining years, and immediately decides: nope, not for him. And so, more or less taking his lead from the Dylan Thomas poem quoted onscreen during the movie’s opening moments, he does not go gentle into that good night. Rather, he takes the wheel of his Cadillac and heads to Mexico for what likely will be a final vacation.
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Fortunately, Red does not have to make the trip alone. Gally (Jeremy Irvine, “War Horse”), the twentysomething offspring of Red’s long-estranged son, shows up to pay an unannounced visit to the grandfather he’s never known, and winds up accompanying Red on his road trip.
Scripter Wittliff and Spanish helmer Emilio Aragon (“Paper Birds”) hit the sweet spot between galloping and sauntering while unfolding the movie’s plot, an interlocking chain of coincidences, encounters and colorful supporting characters that often recalls the twisty storylines of Elmore Leonard.
A satchel stuffed with money stolen during a drug deal is the MacGuffin that propels the action. Red and Gally are left holding the bag — without knowing about its contents — when Red abandons two shifty hitchhikers who are insufficiently respectful (and, worse, drink too much of his beer). Red doesn’t discover how much loot has been dropped into his lap until well after he and Gally begin a dusk-till-dawn itinerary that includes stops at a rowdy whorehouse — where Red is content only to dance, quite smoothly, with the madam — and a seedy restaurant.
The latter spot is where Red and Gally meet Patty Wafers (Angie Cepeda), a beautiful but career-stalled nightclub singer who seldom gets through a performance without offering a crowd-pleasing flash of her breasts. Patty is amused by the two gringos — and oddly attracted to Red — but anxious about any potentially lethal strings that might be attached to the money Red has found. Her worst expectations are realized when the trio run afoul of a notorious local triggerman (Joaquin Cosio) and an even more dangerous drug dealer (Luis Tosar).
Throughout almost every scene of “A Night in Old Mexico,” Duvall tears into his juicy lead role like a famished ranch hand devouring a heaping helping of BBQ. Equal parts irascible old coot and blunt-force instrument, Red is the sort of fellow who’ll unapologetically call out God for the Almighty’s apparent lack of support, and never back down from a tussle with men half (or even a third) his age. Duvall persuasively portrays all of that, but he’s equally effective as Red suggests regrets, behaves honorably and conveys courtliness when dealing ladies of all ages.
Irvine holds his own opposite the force of nature that is Duvall — albeit just barely — and retains at least some semblance of pride even while Gally sports the ersatz cowboy apparel (impulsively purchased at an airport gift shop) that Red mercilessly criticizes. Cepeda is aptly spirited and supported, although her character — more specifically, her character’s foul-mouthed dialogue — might be a turnoff for many of the older viewers most likely to enjoy this otherwise old-fashioned dramedy. (She drops enough F-bombs to make one sporadically wonder whether Patty Wafers wandered in from “The Wolf of Wall Street.”)
Filmed primary in and around Brownsville, Texas, “A Night in Old Mexico” is a project that Duvall and Wittliff have been doggedly developing for decades. Admirers of both men no doubt will be pleased to see how their tenacity has paid off in this small-budget, handsomely produced labor of love.