Indie director Brad Furman has unleashed a powerful low budget thriller that makes good use of the talents of John Leguizamo as well as those of supporting performers Tyrese Gibson and Rosie Perez
Leguizamo plays Felix De La Pena, an armored car driver trying to make ends meet in East Los Angeles. When he is critically injured in a brutal armored car robbery, the robbers try to frame him to divert suspicion from their direction.
Writers Jonas and Josh Pate have attempted to re-create the feeling of Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” about the real side of life in the ghettos of LA. The filming is as gritty as the streets themselves as the hand-held camera follows the lead through his day-to-day routine amongst the collapsing houses of his neighborhood. The camera textures are as interesting as the hero and the story combined. The flat lighting and grey LA haze make for the perfect pallet on which to paint the minimal experiences of minimum wage parents trying to hold onto a dream.
As a result of the armored car robbery, De La Pena is left with a serious head injury, calculated by the robbers to leave him ill-suited to defend himself against the murder charges calculated by the constables on the job. The head injury leaves him disabled and partially under the influence of drugs, but he fights on, now against two opponents: the first being the frame-up and the second being the pain and lack of concentration caused by the injury.
The film itself is down, dirty and dicey as the plot. The robbery set-up takes a good bit of cooperation on the part of the audience to buy the ease with which the robbers are able to hijack the truck and make off with the loot. The very fact that the star survives the gunshot wound is somewhat of a miracle. This is even more the case since the robber intentionally aims the pistol and pulls the trigger against his victim’s head to injure and not to kill.
This is, in fact, brain surgery performed in the streets. A little too much to accept.
Rosie Perez does a good job as De La Pena’s wife, struggling to help him cope with his injury, but slowly buckling under the strain of his temper tantrums and increased drug use. Can she stay the course until he gets back on his feet? Or will she be dragged down with him as ghetto, poverty and circumstance conspire to destroy them both, and their family as well.
The culmination of the film is a hand-held filmed chase scene that is as good as it gets. Expertly done through every nook, cranny, stairway, fence and rooftop location imaginable, the harshness, pollution and degradation of the LA ghetto environment is driven into every scene. The final showdown is realistic, without a bit of pretense. It is completely consistent with the chase itself and completely consistent with the characters. It is not over-dramatized but is still moving and powerful.
Overall, the film is most notable as a good look at inner city life, although Burnett said it better. It is also a reasonable inner city thriller, although there have been better injured heroes than Leguizamo (say, Sylvester Stallone in “First Blood.” Shaft?). Still, this is an excellent independent production and a very fresh look at camera and narrative method.
Release: April 11, 2008
MPAA: Rated R for violence, sexual content, language and some drug
Runtime: 96 minutes