Written and directed by John Sayles
Starring: Joel Torre, Chris Cooper, Yul Vásquez, Ronnie Lazaro, Garret Dillahunt and DJ Qualls
Run Time: 128 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
(See trailer below.)
Believe it or not, “Amigo” comes in four languages and with subtitles: Tagalog, Spanish, Cantonese, and American English. If you add hillbilly Southern, that makes five; and if you ever need the Tagalog for “We’re being screwed from both ends,” you’ll learn it here.
And how many other epic movies about the gone and almost forgotten Philippine-American War in five languages do you know? Come on then, in any language?
Give Sayles brownie points for bringing this odious historical blight and the Theodore Roosevelt’s version of the doctrine of manifest destiny to book. Sayles is still the director we’d look to for a coherent sense of how to absorb and survive history for the underdog.
In attempting to shed light on the massacring of a million Filipinos in their native land, Sayles spotlights the manifest cynicism of that doctrinal destiny. He enlists some stellar talents among his younger actors, and they do indeed shine brightly.
But as a respected director with a 17-movie record, Sayles needed a slightly less unsubtle script in his latest sermon against the Bush doctrine, and this one remains plodding and leaden, even in five languages.
He’s luckier with his cast and his production team. The Cantonese coolies play up scenes like the jokers in any Stephen Chow fu-fest. Troopers DJ Qualls, Lucas Neff and Garret Dillahunt goof it up playfully, and some very choice cinematography and production details grace the crowd scenes.
Filipino star Joel Torre distinguishes himself as Rafael Dacanay, mayor of a tiny Filipino village in 1900, where the American army is trying to flush local guerilla fighters out of the jungle, including the mayor’s own brother and son. Torre underplays beautifully. (By the way, he’s a ringer for Cesar Chavez, and could star in biopics about the Latino leader.)
As the local priest, Yul Vásquez has his own troubles. He’s a Salamanca-trained Jesuit, and his cynical translations and double-crossings are mingled with parish ceremonies in ravishing period costume. Like the Colonel, he could be more subtly drawn.
But so far this scenario plays a little like warmed-over Conrad. The guerillas are trying to win back the village from both the Spanish era and the American Colonel Goodacre (couldn’t they come up with a less symbolic name?). As played by the multitalented Chris Cooper in a cameo role, he’s more pungent than subtle. Cooper can act the tormented conscience better than anybody else, but has no conscience here. He can act the pants off anyone, but this is a one-note villain.
And the editing … what happened there? Someone has some ‘splaining to do, big time. It’s a little painful. The army of devotees for whom Sayles could do no wrong in films like “Matawan” and “Lone Star” will be wondering about that soundtrack, too; a chance to swoon is missed.
And “Amigo” has an especially grim and nasty ending that I, as one of Sayles’ greatest fans, could not watch. It makes its point, but at a cost.