Friday, August 19, 2011

Sayles’ Amigo

During the Spanish-American War, U.S. troops in Cuba got all the glory (remember San Juan Hill?). By contrast, those who served during the Philippine-American War got monsoons, dysentery, and the clap. For indie filmmaker John Sayles, it also represents Viet Nam, Iraq, and everything else he does not like about America to judge from his clumsily didactic Amigo (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Rafael Dacanay, the mayor of a remote Filipino village, assures the relatively sympathetic American Lieutenant Compton he is an “Amigo,” or ‘friendly” to use terminology of slightly more recent vintage. As a reasonable chap, Compton allows him to continue on as “head man,” but he frees the dastardly Spanish priest Dacanay had imprisoned (hadn’t we just been fighting the Spanish?). Of course, it is not long before Dacanay has taken his place in solitary, thanks to some stupid misunderstandings on the part of the Americans and the villainous machinations of Padre Hidalgo.

Compton legitimately wants to win the “hearts and minds” of the villagers (yes, he really uses that expression), but his neo-conservative commanding officer Col. Hardacre (yes, that really is his name) is having none of that mushiness. He is convinced the locals have information on the guerillas and Compton is to squeeze them until they talk.

What happened during the shooting on the island of Bohol? The resulting Amigo is not just a bad movie. It is a depressing experience to watch something like this from the director of great films like Lone Star and The Secret of Roan Inish. Despite the presence of several accomplished Filipino actors, like Joel Torre and Ronnie Lazaro (both excellent in the arty horror movie Yanggaw), the film never rises above the level of crude political street theater.

Perhaps most embarrassing is the normally reliable Sayles-regular Chris Cooper as the grizzled Col. Hardacre. Frankly, he looks and sounds like a pirate. Rather than threatening Dacanay with hanging, the audience will expect him to make the Mayor walk the plank. These are not characters, they are stock stereotypes. Evidently, only Garrett Dillahunt was allowed to approach his character, Lt. Compton, with any nuance. It was certainly welcome though.

Those who hate America, the military, and Catholicism will probably feel compelled to pretend Amigo is a good film. It isn’t. Granted, Sayles productions are always extremely indie affairs, but even the sets here look phony. The rest of us should hope Sayles got this ideological hiccup completely out of his system and can move on to deeper, more rewarding projects. Completely skippable, Amigo opens today (8/19) in New York at the AMC Empire.