Easy target 

Hitman for hire, James Gandolfini mobs The Mexican

As if taking a cue from her good fortune with Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts has found another Albert Finney of sorts in James Gandolfini. You'd probably never guess it to see any of the advertisements for the movie, but in The Mexican (opening March 2), the Oscar-nominated superstar spends considerably less time on screen with leading man Brad Pitt than she does with third-billed character actor Gandolfini.

Audiences should count their blessings.

The sophomore effort of director Gore Verbinski, The Mexican is a wobbly concoction of crime caper and romantic comedy, every bit as convoluted and chaotic in its pitch as was his first film, Mouse Hunt (1998) -- and quite nearly as cartoonish. In what basically amounts to bookends for the rest of the movie, the pretty co-stars bicker and reconcile in typically cute, dimwitted Hollywood fashion. In the interim, while he's south of the border botching yet another "courier" job for the mob, she's forging an unlikely kinship with the hit man they've hired to keep an eye on her.

The role may not seem like much of a departure from Gandolfini's so-called "day job," playing crime boss Tony Soprano on the popular HBO series "The Sopranos" (now beginning its third season), but there's a proverbial "twist" to the character that must be seen to be fully appreciated. In no time, he and Roberts are tearfully counseling one another about relationships and other affairs of the heart like a couple of girlfriends from way back.

"On the one hand, I felt I needed a bit of a change so that people wouldn't start thinking I was Tony Soprano, but at the same time, I didn't have a lot of time (while on hiatus from the series) and I didn't want to have to change rhythms completely. This gave me a shot at trying something a little different, but it also let me stay inside the same general mindset," the actor says during a recent interview.

"So many times you get a few pages into a script and you know just where it's heading. With this one, there were some pretty cool twists and surprises in it, and I liked that I never knew exactly where it was going," he says.

Although his career might have progressed differently had Gandolfini the traditional good looks of, say, Brad Pitt, the 40-ish New Jersey native quips, "With my looks, you can always find work playing thugs." And so he did. A late bloomer who didn't start acting professionally until he was 30, Gandolfini studied in New York and trained off-Broadway prior to relocating to L.A. and landing a string of tough-guy bits in movies like True Romance, Crimson Tide and Get Shorty.

After years of plugging away in relative obscurity, Gandolfini has become a veritable overnight star, thanks to his ongoing portrayal of the emotionally conflicted Tony Soprano. How has the success of the show changed him? "It just takes a lot more energy to do things now. It's not like I can't still run out to the store for a carton of milk, but I have to be a little more awake and alert than I used to be," he says.

"I had no idea ["The Sopranos"] was going to turn into such a huge thing," the actor says. "I just thought the show was funny, you know? I mean, if it was just going to be more of the same violence we've all seen before, then I wouldn't have wanted anything to do with it, but it was funny and it really cracked me up. It's like the humor in The Mexican, where this hit man is expressing all these deep thoughts about human relationships."

Some people -- and some Italian-American groups, in particular -- fail to see the humor in the otherwise criminal behavior of those Sopranos. Ask him about walking the fine line between the two and Gandolfini says, "If you watch the show, it's interesting that it isn't saying in any way that crime pays. Tony Soprano is miserable, and so is everyone he works with. We never glorify the violence. We show it. It's clear that it's there. You see it. But even Jeffrey Dahmer probably had days when he came across as being a pretty charming guy, too."

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    • Local band Manchester Orchestra, who provided the soundtrack, probably would have appreciated a shout-out.

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