Moral hazard

Secuestro Express may be a hard-hitting headbutt of a movie about kidnapping with a subtle moral message, but it is no treatise on ethics


Secuestro Express
Jonathan Jakubowicz
2005, Miramax/Tres Malandros
84 minutes

Reviewed by Eugene Carey

LATAMROB rating: ***

WHEN THE director of what is billed as a gripping crime thriller and clearly intended to be that and that alone tries to smuggle across a concealed moral message, alarm bells as loud as those that go off when you put the wrong key in the door of a carjacked SUV must surely sound.

Jonathan Jakubowicz tries to do so by tossing a few crude moral kickpunches into the dialogue as well as shots of dangling crucifixes in this high-octane, low-calibre headbutt of a movie – yet, surprisingly, he gets away with it. The punches are delivered cleanly, mainly from the back seat – and the car alarm does not even go off.

As a result, Secuestro Express becomes, ever so slightly, something more than an urban gang flick in which three amoral hoods kidnap two decadent ricos in order to feed off them before leaving their bleached bones to the lions of the underworld or the vultures of the police force.

It becomes an, almost, authentic snapshot of the filthy underbelly of a city where kidnapping and murder is as common as cops are corrupt. We are left wondering here who is right and who is wrong, and whether it is poverty that breeds barbarity – or the arrogance of the rich. A rapist can be a doting father and wear a cross; an ice-cold killer can be a saviour; a clean-cut rich kid can be a coke-snorting degenerate.

But we know all this already, don’t we? And so one has to ask whether the moral ambivalence that Secuestro Express draws attention to as a film about a city as violent and poor as Caracas is, in fact, incidental. It is not skilful scriptwriting or indeed powerful performances that leave the filmgoer with a sense that there is bad – and good – in everyone, rich and poor, divine or damned. It is merely the quite unavoidable truth that life in the slums of a sprawling Latin American city cleft by money and aspirations is, inevitably, going to be nasty, brutish and mean. And thus it ever was. We are probably all familiar with what breeds injustice by now: Secuestro Express is no original treatise on ethics.

Other than Mía Maestro, who delivers a passable performance as Carla, the rich girl who likes to help poor children, and Rubén Blades, who does not have to work very hard in his limited supporting role as her father, the rest of the cast were not professional actors. Carlos Julio Molina, Pedro Pérez and Carlos Madera are suitably bad as the gangsters Trece, Budu and Niga. Jean Paul Leroux has us hating him as Martin, but it is not entirely clear that it is because of his acting.

The critics liked Secuestro Express, but arguably because it reminded them that injustice is a foreign dish best served cold. This tells us far more about why Latin Americans make some films and not others, and how they try to conceal their cries of pain, than it does about the film itself.

Eugene Carey is a journalist