From the structure of his screenplays to the fluidity of his working-class themes, the cinema of John Sayles is always clean. Unfortunately, that assessment doesn't always apply to the quality of his work. Over some 30 years as writer-director-editor, his insistence on creative autonomy on most projects has made Sayles a symbol of American independent filmmaking. It has not, however, made him a critical darling. His latest effort, "Amigo," lays bare this duality: It's both lesser Sayles and Sayles at his best.
Set during the Phillippine-American War at the turn of the 20th century, "Amigo" finds Sayles treading territory he first explored in "Matewan." The film follows an oppressed people taking a stand against impossible odds and not exactly winning the battle. (That would only qualify as a spoiler if the story weren't based on a massive historical event.)
On the trail of Filipino revolutionaries, a small group of U.S. soldiers sweep into a quaint village headed by Rafael (Joel Torre), whose brother leads a guerrilla faction hiding in the nearby forest. While the younger troops fraternize with villagers and even come close to forming friendships, their menacing overlord Col. Hardacre (Sayles regular Chris Cooper) insists on distrusting the locals and barreling down on them for enemy intel. The tension builds and inevitably erupts into violence.
Sayles, as usual, has a commitment to character development that takes prominence over plot; this leads to archetypes. Along with the irredeemably evil Col. Hardacre and the innocent motives of Rafael, a constantly divided lieutenant (Garret Dillahunt) struggles with his troops' feelings of sympathy for their Filipino hosts, turning to a fiery priest (Yul Vazquez) to act as a middleman. The Americans drink and flirt with their hosts, only to turn cold when duty calls. The arc transcends the details of the war, which enables Sayles to craft a pedestrian drama steeped in the universal obstacles of racial conflict and imperialism.
As a result, the dialogue rarely engages with the specifics of the war. "How can both sides be right?" someone wonders without delving into the details of the Filipino revolutionaries' intent or the American desire to overturn it. Another soldier asks his opposite, "How do you know your side is holy?"
Hammering home his ideas about the destructive nature of cultural barriers, Sayles observes the same deep-seated biases found in much of his work. It can work wonderfully, as in the texture of the small Texas border town in "Lone Star," but rarely does it come up in a non-gratuitous fashion. (Even his unrealized "Jurassic Park IV" screenplay involved the dangers of a militant agenda, with dinosaurs being trained to kill by the U.S. government.)
Well cast and undeniably attuned to the nuances of human behavior, "Amigo" nevertheless suffers from simple dramatic shorthand, most evidently during an on-the-nose shootout between Americans and insurgents intercut with a cock fight. The animalistic forces driving acts of violence speak for themselves, but Sayles turns up the volume. In doing so, he leaves his mark, arguing time and again that human behavior is fated to repeat itself -- and so, by extension, must his movies.
criticWIRE grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Released by Variance Films in select markets this weekend, "Amigo" should generate decent business from audiences curious about its nonfiction basis and lured by the Sayles brand, although its long-term commercial prospects are dicey.