Picks and Pans Review: Old Gringo

updated 10/23/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/23/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jane Fonda, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Smits

This is a ponderous film, more devoted to its stars than to the characters they play and glowing with the intensity of its own thoughtfulness. Still, it's not Heaven's Gate South.

For one thing, it has a real idea behind it. Adapted from Carlos Fuentes's novel by Argentinean screenwriter Aida Bortnik and director Luis (The Official Story) Puenzo, it takes its theme from the modern third world's confrontation with the aging, yet oddly naive U.S. The vehicle is Ambrose Bierce, the American journalist who disappeared in Mexico during Pancho Villa's 1913 revolution. Peck plays Bierce as a disillusioned geriatric case, who, looking to die in a good cause, elbows into Villa's army in a unit commanded by L.A. Law's Smits. Fonda is a spinster teacher stranded when the family that hires her flees to avoid the revolution.

Smits gradually goes wacko—perhaps from the weight of the symbolism he carries as the bastard son of an Indian peasant and the patrician who raped her. Peck goes around being enigmatic. Fonda beams with a sense of discovery—of everything from sex and social revolution to the oddities of old folks. Puenzo lingers too long on star close-ups. With those faces filling the screen, it's hard to avoid thoughts of how well Peck or Fonda is holding up, or of how close Smits is getting to the guerrilla caricature of Castro that Jack Palance was guilty of in Che!

Elia Kazan's 1952 movie on the Mexican Revolution, Viva Zapata!, was more affecting. But Puenzo's film is rich in Latin authenticity with its impressive supporting cast and gorgeous Mexican locations. And at times Bortnik and Puenzo effectively transpose Fuentes's ability to blend the personal and the political. One such moment is when Peck, who could hardly be more of an Uncle Sam surrogate if he were wearing red, white and blue, tries to seduce Fonda. He tells her: "I would like to delude myself one more time—feel intrigued, hopeful, enthusiastic."

Not everyone will agree with that portrait of the U.S., but at least it makes its point with subtlety. If Puenzo had used his actors more consistently, he might have made the profound film he so obviously was aiming for. (R)

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