Drug dealers and government hit men have at it in “La Soga,” a violent crime thriller that reps a rare feature from the Dominican Republic. Made mainly by Yanks and New York-based Dominicans, the vibrant film bursts with local color and trades in very specific aspects of criminality, island-style. Straightforward, action-packed yarn packs sufficient punch to play well with general audiences in Spanish-lingo markets, including U.S. niches.
Screenwriter Manny Perez plays Luisito, a tough enforcer for Gen. Colon (Juan Fernandez) of the secret police. With a license to kill, Luisito and his partner, Tavo (Hemky Madera), are encouraged to act as cop, judge and executioner, dispatching instant justice to drug peddlers and other lowlifes so the public will know the government means business.
There’s plenty of backstory here, however. When he was 10, Luisito watched as his butcher father was gunned down for no reason by the notorious Rafa (Paul Calderon). Becoming an assassin is thus part of Luisito’s long-range plan to avenge his father’s death, which he’ll do if the general ever gets Rafa deported back from New York.
Director Josh Crook plunges right into slums you’re willing to believe are among the country’s worst (the film was shot in Santiago and outlying Baitoa), providing a close-up tour of neighborhoods few tourists are likely to visit. (There’s even a sobering sequence in which some crims follow a taxi from the airport to hold up the new arrivals before they reach their destination.) Never-dull pic is supercharged with energy from the locations to the performances and the music, and permits no dull stretches.
All the same, gung-ho Tava notices telltale signs that his buddy, “La Soga” (the Rope), is going slack. First, Luisito decides not to finish off one bad boy he’d have whacked without a thought in the past. Secondly, he begins dating a childhood sweetheart, Jenny (Denise Quinones), and doesn’t want to admit to her what he does for a living. And we mustn’t forget that Luisito is a vegetarian, since his father was a butcher whose lasting advice to his son was, “We cannot afford to be sensitive all the time” (“sensitive” viewers will have problems with thevivid slaughter of a pig, partly shown in slow motion for good measure).
Luisito goes too far when he allows himself to be seen murdering a suspect on TV, and he finally decides his boss is at the heart of his, and the country’s, problems. But he still wants to get Rafa, resulting in some tense but woefully convoluted storytelling employed to tie up all the loose ends of a story that, to an unspecified extent, is “inspired by true events.”
Compared with more sophisticated real-life crimers from the U.S., U.K., France and elsewhere, “La Soga” feels rather fabricated and too eager to please; Luisito’s little girlfriend has grown into a knockout (Quinones was Miss Universe 2001), Luisito and his pal never kill anyone who doesn’t really deserve it, and everyone gets their just desserts.
But the picture is refreshingly blunt about extra-judicial law enforcement methods, and it can’t be said that Luisito doesn’t suffer the appropriate torments in deciding on the right thing to do. Perez, a Dominican now living in Gotham, puts plenty of guts into his script and performance and, as the production’s driving producer, assembled a team that undoubtedly put every cent up on the screen.
Using the Red camera, lenser Zeus Morand makes the Dominican Republic look like the most colorful place this side of Brazil, and the music, by composer Evan Wilson, along with existing tunes, keeps everything popping.
Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Zeus Morand; music, Evan Wilson; music supervisors, Rafael Evangelista, Henry Santos Jeter; production designer, Jaime Whitlock; art director (D.R.), Ricky Folch; set designer (D.R.), Eumor Sanchez; costume designer, Slobodan Strinic; sound, Luis Betances (D.R.), Gary Millus, J. Monty Nyahay (N.Y.); sound designer, John Northcraft; line producer, Mercedes Del Rosario; associate producer, Joe Van Wie; assistant director, Fernando Luciano; casting, Pachy Mendez. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), Sept. 13, 2009. Running time: 102 MIN.