Bandidas is a very, very silly film. It's a Robin Hood vigilante Mexican bank robber story, starring Salma Hayek as Sara, the wronged daughter of a rich Mexican bank owner, and Penelope Cruz as Maria, the wronged daughter of a poor Mexican farmer.
The not-particularly-important premise is that the henchman for a greedy American railroad company (played by Dwight Yoakam in particularly sleazy glory) comes to Mexico and cons Sara's father into some sort of bank partnership, then kills him and takes over his holdings. Once in control, he forces all of the farmers off their land to make way for the railroad. Sara, out to avenge her father's death, and Maria, out to get money to feed the displaced people, both come up with the idea to rob the local bank, where they run into each other. After seeing how much the people need, they decide to rob more banks and las bandidas are born.
In many ways, it's a fun little movie. The action is silly (Hayek's character is unable to shoot a gun without dissolving into nervous hiccups, so she throws knives), it has moments that are funny, and the good guys (and more importantly, good women) prevail. Steve Zahn has a particularly amusing turn as a scientific-method obsessed American detective dispatched to Mexico to help try to capture the bandidas who falls in with them instead. In terms of heroine content, though, it's not what it could be.
The major issue is that Hayek and Cruz provide much of the movie's comic relief by constantly fighting with each other. Early in the film, they have a scene that can't be called anything but a cat fight (complete with hair-pulling and ripped clothes) and things don't improve all that much from there. Once Quentin, Zahn's character, joins up with the women, they undermine their own success by fighting over him. So typical, and so unrealistic. Cruz and Hayek are competent, beautiful women with a mission. Zahn is a dorky, insecure scientist. Like they'd endanger their ability to save their country people for the sake of his skinny white butt! Also, in the Tomb Raider model, both Hayek's breasts and (especially) Cruz's are featured so prominently in the film that they ought to have separate billing. There is scene of them doing push-ups in a running stream (under the tutelage of their bank robbery instructor Bill, played by Sam Shepard) that seriously made me laugh out loud with its ridiculous porniness.
All that being said, Hayek's Sara and Cruz's Maria are still tough, funny characters who are robbing banks to feed the poor, and I'm into that. There are also moments of feminist brilliance, like late in the film when Sara triumphantly frees herself from her corset. Also, though Zahn's presence complicates things a bit, the real relationship development in the film is the friendship despite class boundaries between Sara and Maria. Given the sparseness of films focusing on female friendships in any real way, that's always good stuff.
The film doesn't do too badly with race, either. Though there are certainly some stereotypical depictions of Mexicans, the Mexicans are also consistently smarter and better people than the invading Americans. The casting of the lead roles is slightly off, as Cruz is not Mexican, but Spanish, but it's a lot closer than a lot of what comes of Hollywood, insisting on filling the roles of people of color with white actors, and the supporting Mexican cast is all actually Mexican. Though it is a light-hearted movie that doesn't make any major political pronouncements, the underlying premise of Mexican nationals (Hayek and Cruz) fighting against American invaders stealing their land is a good one, and it's brought to light on occasion, as when the bandidas are freed from their transport to the gallows by a mob of angry peasants, and Sara proclaims, "I might not know who I am but I know who I'm not, I'm not someone who lets her country down. Viva Mexico!" It's hokey, sure, but it's meant to be.
Bandidas was co-written by Luc Bessson, who also wrote The Messenger, The Fifth Element, and The Professional, and Robert Mark Kamen, who wrote the Karate Kid movies. It was directed by newbie directors Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg.
Overall, I'm going to give Bandidas three stars. It's a fun movie with fairly tough lead chicks and nothing that made me really seriously want to vomit. Cruz and Hayek both do a great job with their roles, showing a good deal of spunk and more brass than I'd have expected from Cruz. No, I didn't need to see them roll around on the floor pulling each other's hair, nor did I need to see constant cleavage, but the knife throwing, shot-gun shooting, and horse-riding tricks ultimately made up for it. Viva Bandidas.