Dir: Gore Verbinski. US. 2001. 125mins.

The first pairing of Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt, Hollywood's beloved stars, proves to be a mixed blessing in Gore Verbinski's The Mexican, a mishmash of a movie in which different genres and different styles compete aggressively and strenuously for the viewers' attention.

Although the first and last reels are very much in the tradition of romantic comedy, the long mid-section unravels as a road crime action movie, with Pitt as a hapless minion for the Mob sent to Mexico in search of a mythical ancient pistol, while girlfriend Roberts is held hostage until he returns safely from his duty.

This problematic picture should serve as a test of the pulling power of both stars, who reportedly took major pay cuts to keep the film's budget at about $40m, a price tag that DreamWorks SKG should have no problem recouping and surpassing.

The plot revolves around Jerry Welbach (Pitt), a reluctant bagman who has tapped for his last job for a crime boss to whom he is indebted. His girlfriend Samantha (Roberts) is furious, accusing him of being self-involved and incapable of love, at a time when she needs him the most.

Faced with two ultimatums, one from his Mob boss, the other from Samantha, Jerry chooses the former and finds himself on the street with his stuff thrown out of their balcony by Samantha, determined to pursue her Las Vegas dreams alone.

After their first scene together, the lovers are kept apart for the next 90 minutes. In telling the story, scriptwriter JH Wyman sends Jerry and Samantha on separate but interwoven journeys, which are equally erratic and unpredictable. Following generic conventions of romantic romps and road adventures, the yarn piles up numerous obstacles to overcome before the lovers can at long last reunite. Jerry is sent on a mission by an accountant-type of mobster, Bernie (Balaban), second in command to imprisoned crime boss Arnold. Reluctantly but obediently, Jerry heads south of the border to retrieve a priceless antique pistol named "The Mexican", which is veiled in mystery and is supposed to carry a legendary curse.

Surprisingly, finding the pistol is easy, but getting it back home is another matter. It goes without saying that along the way, Jerry loses and regains the treasured gun, his car, his passport and even a dog. Meanwhile, through cross-cutting that gets a bit prosaic, Samantha faces her own ordeals. She is observed by one hit man, followed by another, and finally held hostage by Leroy (The Sopranos' Gandolfini) to ensure the safe return of the pistol. Revolving around trust and betrayal, Jerry's adventures are of the macho type that would make Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah proud. Visual style and Alan Silvestri's music reinforce these associations: Jerry's quests and exploits are set in dusty, treacherous Mexican villages, shot in an almost monochromatic colour.

In contrast, Sam and Leroy begin to engage in lengthy tete-a-tete discussions about relationships, particularly after a charming scene, in which Sam realises her tough hitman is a "sensitive" homosexual with a history of bad relationships. Indeed, pandering to gay viewers, in the middle of the rough proceedings and beatings, there is a tender courtship and sex scene between Leroy and Frank (Cerveris), a man he picks up at a coffee shop. The Vegas locales of lounges and malls are shot in vivid and saturated colours to differentiate them from the Mexican ones.

Interspersed in the contemporary plot are flashbacks of the conflicting legends that explain how the pistol came to be cursed. A variety of people relate the tale, each putting his own spin on the pistol's history from the time it was created in the 19th century. Lenser Dariusz Wolski gives these reconstructions the look of a silent movie with a touch of magical realism.

Ultimately, the narrative is not as smart or edgy as it thinks it is: there are too many verbose scenes about the meaning of love and how to express it, which get tedious and account for an excessive two-hour-plus running time, instead of a 90-minute romp. If Verbinski, who previously directed Mouse Hunt, had sped the picture up, audience would not have time to see its faults and absurdities. All too often, The Mexican drifts lazily, with the camera taking long rests on the stars' faces - at least they have gorgeous ones.

Although they have only five or six scenes together, there is good chemistry between Pitt and Roberts. Pitt is well cast as a guy who is none-too-bright; a loveable loser who through a bizarre course of events becomes an unlikely hero. Blank but radiant, Pitt boasts his trademark virility, a seductive presence on whom audiences can project their romantic dreams.

Roberts overacts in the early bickering scenes, but improves after her character is kidnapped. Playing a variant of her typical tough-but-vulnerable role, she gives a fluent if not terribly commanding performance as a woman who can tell what is wrong with everyone else's relationships, but cannot really understand what is wrong with hers.

The supporting cast is strong, particularly Gandolfini, in his first major film role since The Sopranos, and Gene Hackman in a cameo role that shows what a brilliant actor can do with a tiny scene.

Prod co: DreamWorks SKG in association with Newmarket. US dist: DreamWorks SKG. Exec prods: William Tyrer, Chris J Ball, Aaron Ryder, JH Wyman. Prods: Lawrence Bender, John Baldecchi. Scr: JH Wyman. Cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski. Prod des: Cecilia Montel. Ed: Craig Wood. Music: Alan Silvestri. Main cast: Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, James Gandolfini, Bob Balaban