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Double-barreled firepower

It's one of the most urgent questions facing men of a certain age today, particularly in Latin American countries, a question that strikes at one's core values and affirms one's identity as a soccer-mad, tequila-swigging, red-blooded varon.

That question is: Salma or Penelope?

And here, off a dusty desert road in the middle of nowhere, a Hollywood film crew may be about to find some answers.

Not that "Bandidas," a western comedy-drama that bills itself as a feminized, Mexicanized "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," is notable only for its made-in-P.R.-marketing-heaven tandem of Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz, the two hottest actresses in the Spanglish-speaking world today. "Bandidas" also may be the first cowboy flick to feature a playwright (Sam Shepard) and a country singer (Dwight Yoakam) known for their sly methods of tweaking the myths and mannerisms of Marlboro Country.

And it's surely the first revisionist western to be directed by not one but two thirtysomething Norwegians, Espen Sandberg and Joachim Roenning. Childhood friends who grew up near Oslo making videos of exploding "Star Wars" figurines, their biggest prior claim to fame was a beer commercial starring a dog.

But just as "Butch Cassidy" derived much of its appeal from the sculpted cheekbones and ricocheting wisecracks of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, "Bandidas" clearly is hitching its wagon to Hayek and Cruz, whose superficial similarities (Latina, brunet, petite, pulchritudinous) have made them the subject of fierce partisan debates in chat rooms and bars across three continents. The film is expected to be released later this year by 20th Century Fox.

Visiting the "Bandidas" set, it's evident that Hayek and Cruz have established their version of the Newman-Redford rapport: mutual friendship and regard, camouflaged by constant onscreen bickering and one-upmanship. Between takes, they're thick as thieves: whispering together, laughing at each other's jokes, even sharing puffs on the same cigarette. "We share everything except boyfriends," Cruz deadpans. But the minute the cameras roll, the fur starts flying again.

"We have a huge catfight," Cruz says gleefully during a break from shooting, "and then we physically hit each other a few times during the movie." Hayek, for her part, makes it clear that she gives as good as she gets, on screen and off. "I do tease her a lot, and she puts up with it," Hayek says. "She's a trouper."

With a script co-written by French impresario Luc Besson, who is producing the movie with Ariel Zeitoun, and a polyglot crew from France, Norway, Mexico and the U.S., "Bandidas" takes a slightly cockeyed look at the Old West (via south of the border) as a place where not all men were manly and not all women were schoolmarms, saloon tarts or helpless nitwits in petticoats and parasols.

Set in Mexico in 1888, the movie spins off the stormy relationship between Sara Sandoval (Hayek), the prim, European-educated offspring of landed gentry, and Maria Alvarez (Cruz), a peasant farmer's daughter. The misfits are thrown together when some hired hands working for the railroad robber barons, led by a dandyish gunslinger with a seriously warped sense of humor (Yoakam), steal the women's land and murder their loved ones. Though they dislike each other at first, Sara and Maria reluctantly join forces to settle their scores, with the unexpected aid of a starchy Eastern railroad detective (Steve Zahn), whom they kidnap and treat as their boy toy.

In the end, Cruz's belching, off-color, seemingly not-too-swift farm girl is changed by her contact with Hayek's snooty, pampered aristocrat. The actresses say their friendship also has had a transforming effect.

"We really respect each other," Cruz says, "but if one asks a question to the other one, we know we're going to hear the truth. And I think that's why we are close friends and closer every day, because there's no B.S. in our relationship."

Hayek agrees. "I enjoy her. She's quite a character," she says of Cruz. "Other things that in other people would be neurotic or whatever, would be unbearable -- on her they're very graceful." Such as? Oh, dabbing up salt grains with little pieces of bread. Spilling the plots of TV serials. "She has this bad habit because she tells you the ending of every episode," Hayek says with feigned annoyance. Plus, Hayek says, "she's always talking on the phone, and I hate the phone."

"Bandidas" may help establish whether Hayek, 38, from Veracruz, Mexico, and Cruz, 30, a Madrid native, have attained the kind of star clout that translates into big opening-weekend box office and lucrative overseas sales. The critical consensus was that Hayek achieved an artistic breakthrough as Frida Kahlo in Julie Taymor's 2002 biopic. Cruz, who has made movies in at least three languages, was one of Europe's most popular and versatile young actresses years before the tabloids began drooling over her affair with Tom Cruise.

But neither has had to carry a high-profile Hollywood action-comedy with such dramatic shifts in tone as those in "Bandidas." "It's very tricky," Hayek says of the screenplay. "It is a comedy, but there are some major conflicts going on in my character. But you can't take it too dark and too deep."

Cruz and Hayek say they'd wanted to do a movie together for ages but had never found the right project until Cruz was working with Besson on a film and proposed the idea of a female western comedy. A similar concept has worked at least once before: Forty years ago, Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau va-va-voomed their way through the Mexican Revolution in Louis Malle's "Viva Maria!" It remains to be seen whether "Bandidas" will be a memorable, cliche-bending western that takes chick-flick conventions right up to the brink a la "Thelma & Louise" or merely a run-of-the-mill odd-couple comedy.

But at the very least, the movie will provide a venue for those who have yet to tire of the "Salma or Penelope" debate.

"The great thing about this movie," Sandberg says with a Cheshire-cat smile, "is that you get them both."

Two directors, one vision

On a late-autumn morning, the sun is bearing down on this cactus-studded hamlet, whose lip-smacking name belies its arid harshness. The rugged mountains and solitary mesas here in Coahuila and neighboring Durango states have served as backdrop for scores of A-grade westerns such as "The Wild Bunch" and John Huston's "The Unforgiven," along with some classic B-grade kitsch (Ringo Starr in "Caveman").

Apart from the occasional 18-wheeler roaring by on the highway, the only visible sign of life is the film crew off in the middle distance, and if you squint like Clint Eastwood you may convince yourself that those circa-1880 railroad cars are the real thing, not clever Hollywood forgeries.

"We need smoke from the kitchen!" Roenning says as he scurries across a flat car crammed with sound equipment, a camera crane and a battery of technical crew. As two female stunt doubles stand by for orders, Sandberg, his pale skin flush with sunburn, confers with the taller, lankier Roenning, who's wearing a T-shirt that reads "Besame que soy Mexicano" -- "Kiss me, I'm Mexican."

"Cut! Perfect!" Roenning yells after the next take, and with a heavy lurch the train heaves back down the tracks toward the trailer-covered parking lot known as "base camp."

Sandberg and Roenning's symbiotic relationship gives new meaning to the phrase "buddy movie." They first began collaborating as kids when Roenning's father bought the boys a video camera. Obsessed with the "Star Wars" trilogy, "E.T." and the Indiana Jones series, they made short, quirky films starring themselves, with special effects made using exploding firecrackers and plastic bags filled with ketchup and water.

They were already making commercials by the time they graduated from film school in Stockholm. "You need to tell a story in 30 seconds, so you learn to be very, very critical of your own work," Roenning says of commercial making.

The duo scored their big break during a recent Super Bowl with their award-winning "Rex the Dog" spot for Budweiser, featuring a Method-acting canine who taps his inner Marlon Brando to cry on command. Soon, their partnership caught the eye of Besson, the French auteur of hit films such as "La Femme Nikita" and "The Professional."

But when Besson suggested the novice Norwegians to direct "Bandidas," Hayek and Cruz balked. To break the ice, Besson proposed that Sandberg and Roenning make a "tryout" movie, and the directors settled on a "Bandidas" spoof that had them wearing sombreros, speaking pidgin Spanish and sloshing around in a freezing river.

"The girls thought it was hysterical," Roenning says, "so lucky for us."

On set, the men observe a fairly strict division of labor: Sandberg works with the actors, while Roenning is in charge of most everything else. When they need to express something to each other, they often lapse into Norwegian, which can be amusing if Hayek and Cruz are confiding in Spanish at the same time. "In a way, they are almost like one person," Cruz says. "And they always make it easy for us."

Yoakam says that, as Europeans who grew up watching Hollywood movies, Sandberg and Roenning approach the western genre "with a unique innocence. What they like about it are probably the things, thinking back as children, we liked about it -- twirling guns and spurs."

Both directors are quick to acknowledge the influence of other classic western directors, including Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. But it's really what they call the "smart action" of Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones" series that's providing their template.

"It's not about the size of the explosion," Sandberg says, "but it's about the girls using a female way of thinking, a smartness in their way to solve the problems that they face during the course of their action."

Strengthening a bond, on screen and off

From a marketing standpoint, casting two telegenic young actresses in an action comedy doesn't require a Harvard MBA. Casting them in an action comedy where they hold a "kissing contest" over a naked man tied to a bed (Zahn) and wear fetching period ensembles -- Folies Bergere saloon-girl outfits; leather charreria Mexican rodeo get-ups; tight-laced chaps and waistcoats, with six-guns slung across their hips -- is a no-brainer.

Though the women are often compared, up close they really don't look much alike. Cruz's beauty is earthier, more voluptuous. Hayek's features are more delicate and classically proportioned, but there's a compacted, take-charge intensity about her. Both are funny, smart and mercifully free of Hollywood hauteur. "They're very tough on themselves and very specific in what they're doing," Yoakam says. "I've had a lot of fun terrorizing them -- as my character."

Costume designer Olivier Beriot, who worked with Cruz on a remake of the classic swashbuckler "Fanfan la Tulipe," says that he and the actresses pushed to make their "Bandidas" outfits as flattering as possible. "When you see the picture of real women living in that period, they have a real tough, lesbian look," Beriot says. "Not good for this movie."

Beriot says that through the women's costume changes, "Bandidas" traces an evolving ideal of the independent Western woman who could rope, ride and shoot as well as any man. In the movie, the female characters learn some of those skills from a craggy veteran outlaw played by Shepard, who puts them through a sort of bank-robbers' boot camp. "We both admire Sam very much," Cruz says. "I was telling him when I was a teenager I was doing 'Locos de Amor' (Fool for Love). He was like a god in my theater school."

But if Cruz is right, perhaps the most unusual thing about "Bandidas" is simply that it's trying to be a movie about two independent-minded female friends that's not a three-hanky weepie involving some incurable disease. Such movies are rare, Cruz says, and so are directors like her countryman Pedro Almodovar, who makes women's relationships a central focus of his art. "Maybe," Cruz suggests of "Bandidas," "it's a love story."

Oh, please, you may be thinking, spare me the schmaltz. But imagine a different sort of female-bonding scenario involving Cruz and Hayek. Only this one happened off screen a few weeks ago, and if the ending had been different, you might not be reading this story.

The actresses had flown out of LAX together with a friend of Cruz's to Durango, where they were supposed to meet with the rest of the crew. Roughly an hour into the flight, Hayek noticed one of the flight attendants looking panicked and fumbling with an oxygen tank. The cabin was rapidly depressurizing.

When Cruz, sitting next to Hayek, saw the emergency oxygen masks drop down, at first she thought it was a joke. "I said, 'I don't have to wear the mask because this is not happening.' " As her fear threatened to overcome her, Cruz says, Hayek's calm steadied her. "She really helped me in that moment because I did not react very well."

With a swift, stomach-turning descent, the pilot was able to make an emergency landing in Hermosillo, and the passengers made their way to Durango. By then the actresses were laughing and imitating each other's dissimilar reactions. "I thought maybe we were going down," Hayek says, her eyes drifting out toward the desert as she waits to be called for her next scene. "You know what I thought -- and she (Cruz) was holding my hand -- I thought, 'If I die, I die with my friend.' "

The crew is ready to roll again, and the actresses take their places for the climactic train robbery sequence. Sandberg calls out directions as the women prepare to jump between swiftly moving rail cars. "Like a roller coaster, you're screaming and you're laughing!" he instructs them. Hayek and Cruz have no trouble complying.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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