31 May 2005 | BrandtSponseller
Like a Death Wish film before Charles Bronson arrives
Which isn't to say that A Sangre Fria is a bad film. On the downside, the story sometimes plays a bit like a gangster/crime potboiler and there are technical and artistic problems that are not wholly attributable to budget, but on the upside, A Sangre Fria can be quite gripping. It has a whopper of an ending. The fact that it feels a bit like a Death Wish film before Charles Bronson arrives can be taken positively--it means that director writer/director Fernando Durán doesn't resort to a stereotypical Hollywood resolution to his eventually over-the-top, brutal violence--not to put you in mind of a splatter film. The violence is well done and a bit more realistic here. It tends to be more disturbing conceptually than visually.
If we're to trust the film, A Sangre Fria is a true story. It works well that Durán doesn't tell us this until the film is over, because it gives a nice twist to material that many if not most viewers would have difficulty believing could really happen. The plot, set in Mexico, is centered on a policeman named Carlos (Fernando Sáenz). As A Sangre Fria opens, Carlos and his partner, Pedro (Jorge Aldama) are being told by their Comandante (Alfredo Guitièrrez) that there is a corrupt cop in their midst--someone who has been in cahoots with local gangs/drug dealers. He gives them the assignment to ferret out the bad cop and bring him or her to justice.
Soon after, Carlos and Pedro are called away as they receive a break in the case, but they've been set-up--two men, who call them by name, ambush them, shooting Carlos in the stomach and hospitalizing him. A few months later, we join Carlos and Pedro back on the streets as they chase down a couple local gang members who have just committed robbery. The thugs outrun them. A parallel story begins centered on the gang, which is led by Juan Manuel (Gibrán González). The gang is having internal struggles, which only worsen when Juan Manuel crosses Joel (Alan Ciangherotti), the boyfriend of Carlos' daughter, Mariana (Alexa Gonzalez). Alexa and Joel are having problems of their own. When Juan Manuel enters the picture, it only makes things more complicated. Eventually all of these threads come to a violent boil, and the climax is quite nihilistic.
Much of the above may sound a bit soap-operatic, and obviously the relationships of the various characters can be read that way, but Durán manages to make the proceedings gritty enough--and the ethics in all of these relationships are so rooted in a gangster mentality--that viewers who dislike soap-operatic material will not be turned off.
Unfortunately, despite being gritty enough to not feel like a soap opera, one of the problems with the film is that it isn't nearly as gritty or atmospheric as it should be. Most shots tend to be overlit, although that's a double-edged sword. On the positive side, at least we can always see the action clearly--that's often a problem on low budget films, especially when it comes to night shots. Even the night shots are nice and clear here. But A Sangre Fria also resembles the typical soap opera (including the bits of Spanish soap operas that I have seen) in its bright, full-spectrum daytime lighting in the majority of the film's environments. This is a film that should be much darker (literally and tonally), more monochromatic, and much grainier. Occasionally, the lighting is harsh enough that it's easy to see prominent reflections of par cans in various surfaces, such as walls in houses.
Moodier lighting is also necessary to make these "sets" work. The settings tend to be relatively sparsely decorated, lower-middle-class Mexican homes--as is appropriate for the film. But the hyper lighting saps all of the potential grit out of the settings, and tends to make them just feel like empty, featureless environments.
And a final complaint on this end--the costume design for the Juan Manuel gang veers awfully close to the edge of a 1980s glam/hair band feel. Juan Manuel's cronies look a bit like a group of people who just emerged from a Whitesnake video--or even off of a set in The Wiz (1978) or a mid-1980s Troma flick--and decided to become Suicidal Tendencies (the 1980s LA-based punk band that was influenced by Mexicano gang culture) instead. Juan Carlos' gang appears to still be in that transitional stage.
But maybe I'm being a bit too picky about some of this stuff. The rest of the costume design is good, the locations are good despite the overlighting, and more importantly, the direction and the performances are good. The story is at least interesting throughout. Especially given that it's based on a true occurrence, A Sangre Fria underscores the difficulties that many emerging nations have in their uncontrollable confluence of traditional cultures, modern, first-world, westernized culture and technology, and deep-rooted economic problems. Although the film is a bit clunky in spots, the last 20 30 minutes are at least 9 out of 10 quality. A Sangre Fria would be worth watching for that alone, but it has much more to offer than its climax.