Sunday, June 11, 2006

SECUESTRO EXPRESS - exhilerating, but one for DVD

Just as many a duff British movie has tried to replicate the success of FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, it now seems that every movie featuring Latin American urban crime is marketed as the new CITY OF GOD. (Not least the mediocre FAVELA RISING and LOWER CITY.) In the case of the new Venezualan movie, SECUESTRO EXPRESS, this comparison is somewhat misleading.

Where CITY OF GOD was a wide-ranging, hard-hitting analysis of poverty and crime, SECUESTRO EXPRESS has a far narrower focus. This is not bad thing, but merely a factual statement that you should not expect an "epic" but a closely observed blow by blow account of a single kidnapping. The movie opens with four guys going to work in the early hours of the morning. They have convenient captions in true Guy-Ritchie-style. You know, "Meet X: thief, rapist and model father." The guys are poor and desperate and at various points on that gray-scale of professional ethics. That morning they put into play their usual kidnapping operation, taking a rich young couple as they leave a nightclub. The movie then follows them blackmailing the hostages' parents, scoring drugs, threatening the hostages and finally making the handover.

This thin sliver of a plot is actually rather neat as it allows the movie to become very talky compared to other movies of this kind. Indeed, despite the odd flashes of violence, this is rather a nice black comedy wrapped around some authentic-sounding discussion of the situation in Caracas. For instance, of the hostages, the boyfriend is a spoiled rich kid who regards all poor people as potential criminals and wants to keep well away from them. By contrast, his girlfriend is a warm-hearted person who wants to give them a chance. Similarly, among the kidnappers we have a lot of discussion about why they do what they do, and the limits of their mission. Moreover, throughout the movie we get some fascinating material on the complicity of the police. I also love the fact that numerous times, the kidnappers are themselves threatened with or victims of theft.

Where the movie really scores is in presenting this this material with high energy thanks to performances of credibility and intensity and a gritty script. This is only a short movie but it really flew by and there were several set-ups where I was fearful for the characters on screen. That alone makes this a great thriller. In addition, while I know that this is not the only face of Venezuala, I did find the raw footage of Caracas and the issues addressed in the film full of insight.

However, for me the movie has two major flaws. First, in terms of the story, the final five minutes jumped the shark. I can't say more for fear of spoiling the plot. Suffice it to say that if it had ended five minutes earlier you would have had, to my mind, a far more balls-out gritty drama. Second, the use of digital video is both a blessing and a curse. Digital video has two merits - it is cheap and it is mobile. So if you are shooting a first feature with no budget and you need a fast-paced, in-your-face shooting style, it's perfect. However, it takes a really talented, experienced photographer to use DV in a manner that will translate well on to the cinema screen once it has been blown up. Unfortunately, that was not the case with SECUESTRO EXPRESS. At first I thought - hey! this is cool - the grainy, blurred images just emphasise the nastiness of the material. But after a while, it got distracting.

Overall then, while SECUESTRO EXPRESS is no CITY OF GOD, it is a fascinating, exhilerating crime caper, with some black humour, some tense moments and some superb acting. However, given how poor the print is, you may well find it a better viewing experience to watch in on the small screen.

SECUESTRO EXPRESS played in the US last year and is currently on release in the UK. It hits Australia on July 13th 2006.

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