Mexico is a lawless place. Well, maybe not lawless as much as it is a place where the laws are ignored. The point is you can get away with pretty much anything down there.
When Red Bovie (Robert Duvall) loses his Texas home and ranch to powers outside of his control he decides the trailer park that’s waiting for him can suck it. With the grandson he only just met in tow he heads south for the Mexican border in a spontaneous search for the freedom he craves and the absence of anyone telling him what he can or cannot do. He gets more than he bargained for, but not more than he can handle, when he and young Gally (Jeremy Irvine) find themselves mixed up with a murderous drug runner and a guitar-strumming stripper.
A Night in Old Mexico casts Duvall in the familiar role of a cantankerous but fun-loving old man who’s in no rush to start acting his age. The adventure offers time well-spent with the legendary actor, but the story and supporting cast can’t quite keep up with him.
Red has worked his ranch for most of his life, and after his wife died and his son moved away it became the only thing left of value to him. All of that history is being wiped away now due to financial constraints, and as he’s strongly considering exiting this world with a pull of his trigger finger he meets a young man who’s traveled a long way to meet his grandfather. Dressed in touristy cowboy garb because he simply doesn’t know any better, Gally wants very much to spend time with Red and get to know the man he’s only heard stories about.
His situation and curiosity lead him to accept the ride down to Mexico, but he second guesses that decision when they cross paths with a pair of aggressive men who we witnessed earlier kill another man in a drug deal gone awry. Red and Gally end up with their money, and soon the thugs are on their tail in a small Mexican town and not all of them are going to live to see morning.
Director Emilio Aragón and writer William D. Wittliff set their tone early with a bloody murder and Red’s interrupted suicide attempt, but it’s reined back in quickly as the film shifts into a lighter, more comedic family reunion between the grizzled old bastard and the greenhorn tentatively exploring a brand new world. Once the ruffians show back up though the film falls into a back and forth between the light and the dark, and the two halves never quite gel together.
The violence and gunfights are effectively shot and well-executed on the technical front, but they feel like they belong in a different movie than the one the main characters are currently occupying. It’s reminiscent of early ’90s John Badham films — Bird on a Wire, The Hard Way — where the lead actors are performing in a comedy while the “bad guys” are behaving as if they’re in a hard ‘R’ action/drama. It’s all fun and games for Red and his grandson even as people are dropping dead around them, and that tonal mismatch deflates far too much of the film.
Red’s personal journey remains a fun ride, a feat due as much to Duvall as to the script, but Gally’s own coming of age portion of the tale falls flat. Irvine is part of the problem, but he’s working with a character and dialogue that just about anyone would have stumbled with — we come to know Gally only well enough to dislike him.
A Night in Old Mexico seems fashioned a bit on the Scent of a Woman formula — Irvine even looks a bit like a stretched-out Chris O’Donnell — but where that film meshed humor with realistic, down to earth drama this one takes too sharp of a turn with its murderous drug dealers and fantasy wish-fulfillment of an ending.
The Upside: Robert Duvall is having a good time
The Downside: Tonal imbalance; Jeremy Irvine’s performance and character not up to snuff; fake car scenes
On the Side: William Wittliff’s last produced script was for 2000’s The Perfect Storm.