Buried Credits, a column that deep dives into the IMDB pages of favorite actors, directors, and writers to find their lost, forgotten, or unknown film and TV credits, continues this week with works featuring Jimmy Smits.
Old Gringo (1989)
Directed by Luis Puenzo
Screenplay by Aída Burtnik and Luis Puenzo
Based on the novel by Carlos Fuentes
The title, Old Gringo, should’ve been a tip off but because, like Jon Snow, I know nothing, and took French in college, I didn’t realize gringo means “a foreigner in Spain or Latin America especially when of English or American origin….” [Merriam-Webster]. I wasn’t prepared for the Gregory Peck showboating ahead.
Peck doesn’t seem out to steal attention, and his acting is, per usual, impeccable, but his character overtakes the movie. The wise, white geezer striving to bring Smits’ Spanish general to his senses, Old Gringo is based on a novel inspired by real-life journalist, Ambrose Bierce’s, life. The exact goings-on of Bierce’s stay in Mexico, other than he disappeared there, are unknown. This depiction of what occurred, then, appears to be a lot of conjecture and the result is a film about the Mexican Revolution that feels insultingly over-centered on its two, big name leads, Jane Fonda being the other.
Smits gets underserved as third lead, General Tomas Arroyo, and his arc, about being haunted by his connections to a wealthy, white father who raped his mother, shouldn’t be secondary in a film that already prioritizes white characters. When his army seizes property owned by his dad’s family, the Miranda’s, Arroyo goes through an identity crisis that leaves him unable to follow through on orders. His men are supposed to join up with the troops of Republican leader, Villa, but the longer he stays on what is, technically, his land, the more unwilling Arroyo is to leave. You can’t blame his men for turning on him but the unanimousness of it—that nobody objects, but plenty laugh, during an inflammatory song that openly mocks the general to his face—is one of the film’s few shocks (Smits smolders in this scene where Arroyo’s response is silence). The other shock is how actresses, Jenny Gago and Gabriela Roel, make the most out of short scenes. Their under-utilization, when they should be stars, is Old Gringo‘s precise problem.
The acting all around is high, and could’ve made for a great picture (they’re not big names for nothing) but the story goes nowhere, forcing characters to repeat the same notes until they’re boring and no longer likable. Bierce’s first scene involves tanking a press showing of his new collection of books. That’s top-grade grumpy writer stuff but, like having your favorite meal for dinner for a month, eventually enough is enough and Bierce’s ideals waxing dialogue begins saying nothing and needs to stop. I get that casting Gregory Peck is a big selling point but the film ruins it, and not even Peck can mesh the skeevy-ness of Bierce acting like a father figure to Fonda’s Harriet one minute and ‘gentlemanly’ offering to take her virginity the next.
Verdict: Better Left Buried
Great acting falls apart in a film that’s too slow and beefs up the parts of the people who’ll hypothetically get audiences to watch.
Check back tomorrow as we close off the week with Jimmy Smits performance as a boxing family patriarch.