The Old Gringo

You expect more of the film version of Carlos Fuentes's acclaimed novel of Mexico than Jane Fonda caught in the middle of a ¿Quién es más macho? match between Gregory Peck and Jimmy Smits. Still, it's a welcome diversion from the dull blur Argentinian director and co-writer Luis Puenzo (The Official Story) has made of the book's vivid vision of clashing cultures.

nda has the thankless role of Harriet Winslow, a spinster from D.C. who revolts against her repressed life by traveling to a Mexican hacienda in 1913 to teach the children of a rich landowner. When Pancho Villa's revolutionary army captures the hacienda, she finds herself in thrall to two men: Tomas Arroyo (Smits), a young general fighting with Villa, is the landowner's vengeful bastard son. Ambrose Bierce (Peck) is a seventy-one-year-old muckraking American writer who fancies himself a hypocrite. The old gringo has come to Mexico to die with honor; he isn't capable of suicide. The real Bierce disappeared in Mexico during the civil war; this is what Fuentes imagined happened to him there.

As usual, Peck radiates dignity, intelligence and quiet strength. But he can't or won't connect with the despair that would make the character memorable. It's a star turn from an old smoothie. Right for him. Wrong for the movie. Smits, worlds away from TV's L.A. Law, fares better at suggesting the turbulent emotions roiling beneath masculine bravado. His Arroyo has a fatal flaw: He's attracted to the aristocracy he's sworn to obliterate. Smits sparks the film, but he can't save it. The novel was redolent with sex, savagery and social upheaval. The movie is timid, decorous when it should be devastating. Instead of opening your eyes, it bores you blind.