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Searching for sanctuary: Gaitan in Sin Nombre.

Trail of Tears

By Laura Leon

Sin Nombre

Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga

The odd couple at the center of newcomer Cary Joji Fukunaga’s suspenseful Sin Nombre aren’t so very different from Bowie and Keechie, the downtrodden but hopeful protagonists of Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night. And yet, by virtue of their unique circumstances, they’re a universe, and another century, apart. Casper (Edgar Flores) is a fugitive from the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang, and Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is a Honduran en route with her relatives to the vague safe harbor of New Jersey. The two meet during a robbery instigated by Casper’s leader, the horrific and tattoo-covered Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejía); the soulful foot soldier has had enough, which results in devastating consequences (not the least of which is Sayra’s strange devotion to the thug she believes to be her savior).

Part road-trip movie, part docudrama, Sin Nombre (“nameless”) shimmers with its author’s unique voice and eye for detail. The gang-infested, impoverished environs of Tapachula, Mexico, evoke helplessness and despair; it’s like Mad Max except that, for millions of poor people, it’s real. Angelic El Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer) seems an unlikely recruit for Mara Salvatrucha; indeed, his shriveled up granny has the nerve to try to talk down Casper as he lures the boy to his gang initiation, which is a brutal beating followed by his first kill. The subsequent shot of the victim’s hacked up body being fed to the dogs is one of the moments in which Fukunaga dips too deeply into sensationalism, but it somehow feels more authentic than the newbie writer-director’s efforts to humanize Casper. I’m assuming that his lack of experience held him back from allowing us to see Casper as a young man fully committed to the lifestyle of the gang, but then again, there’s something vaguely Camus-esque in Casper’s acceptance of what fate has in store for him.

Like last year’s Frozen River, which also dealt in human trafficking and lives lived on the dull edge of despair, Sin Nombre is the kind of movie in which you find yourself silently warning the characters not to continue in a chosen way, because you just know nothing good can come of it. This, even when you know that the outcome has to be bad. It’s this ability to reach into your gut and find you wishing there would be a way for Casper and Sayra to be spared any further violence or tragedy that sets Sin Nombre apart from films like, for instance, City of God. Moments such as when children throw lush oranges up to the would-be immigrants who are huddled atop a lurching freight train headed north are a promise, however briefly lived, of renewal, but also of the myriad ways such hope can be snatched away, as happens later, when the promise of that fruit becomes a shower of rocks.

The acting, largely by unknowns, is natural and compelling, as is Adriano Goldman’s stunning cinematography, which is equally adept at capturing the gritty urban poverty of Honduras or Mexico and the sun-dappled flowering trees standing between that poverty and the United States. Fukunaga isn’t so much interested in providing a thought-provoking observation about why some choose gang violence or cluing us into the truly tragic and insidious beginnings and spread of Mara Salvatrucha—that could be a whole other movie. Instead, his focus is on the small story of two insignificant travelers. Their apprehensions, their history of loss and a sliver of hope of redemption are more than enough to compel the audience.

Start me up: Statham in Crank: High Voltage.

Balls Out

Crank: High Voltage

Directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor

Few films have been so brazenly . . . well, brazen as Crank, the high-speed 2006 actioner that found Jason Statham’s killer-for-hire Chev Chelios with a ticking time bomb for a heart, racing against impending death as he chased down the thugs who poisoned him. (Ironic that, two years later, Statham would star in a remake of Death Race.) Vulgar, borderline pornographic, and unflinchingly ultraviolent, Crank looked to be made by and for teenage boys—self-aware to a fault, the film used video-game visuals in its credit sequences.

And as Crank was a financial, if not a critical, success, there’s a sequel. Crank: High Voltage picks up exactly where the first film left off—with Chelios having just fallen out of a helicopter to his (apparent) demise. Just like that, a bunch of Chinese gang members scoop him off the pavement—with a shovel—and cart him away to harvest his seemingly invincible ticker. Chelios won’t stand for such humiliation, and soon he’s on a mission to win back his heart. Thing is, his has been replaced with a temporary artificial heart, and the only way to keep it beating is to electrically charge it via the skin. Which leads, naturally, to Chelios putting his hands on all kinds of things labeled “danger,” between spouting non sequiturs (“Bing fucking Crosby!”) and offing everyone in his path.

Like its predecessor, this Crank pulls no punches—or slices, or shootouts, or boob shots, or dick jokes. (Chelios apparently has a huge package. Go figure.) In one frame the filmmakers are one-upping the testicular-torture scene from Casino Royale; in another they take the action through a seedy strip joint for the sake of the scenery. They do an admirable job of keeping the violence straight-faced and the chase scenes fast-paced, all the while keeping their collective tongue firmly in cheek. And Statham proves himself to be just as capable of shouldering a franchise as forebears Vin Diesel or Bruce Willis, mostly because there aren’t any expectations pinned on him.

With a cast that could be taken from the next season of Dancing With the Stars (Dwight Yoakam and Amy Smart return, joined by Corey Haim, Bai Ling and David Freaking Carradine) and a mind-boggling list of cameos (from Ron Jeremy to Chester Bennington of Linkin Park to Geri “Ginger Spice” Halliwell), Crank is the joke that everyone wants to be in on. It’s processed cheese: You know it’s the wrong color and probably horrible for you, but it looks and tastes so good.

—John Brodeur

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