on July 08, 2005 by Mark Keizer
When heavyweight Mexican directors like Alfonso Cuaron ("Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban") and Guillermo Del Toro ("Hellboy") lend their names to a film, it must be something special. And in its first 15 minutes, it's easy to see why they'd champion Sebastian Cordero's "Cronicas." However, in its last 96 minutes, it's easy to see why not. The film, which is part of the Un Certain Regard program at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, gets off to a great start only to wither and die, becoming a talky and momentum-free serial killer saga that seems dramatically stuck in second gear. Still, "Cronicas" is not without merit: In his first Spanish feature, John Leguizamo is strong as a TV reporter who sinks deeper and deeper into an increasingly uninteresting moral predicament. Also, the movie takes terrific advantage of rarely used Ecuadorian locales, well shot by cinematographer Enrique Chediak. As for Cordero, while it's too early to proclaim the arrival of a great new talent, cinephiles should remain interested in what he does next.

"Cronicas" gets off to a slam-bang start as a small Ecuador village mourns the rape and murder of three boys, the latest victims of a serial killer dubbed The Monster. As the funeral service winds down, sweet-natured traveling salesman Vinicio (Damian Alcazar) accidentally runs over the brother of one of the victims. The crowd, led by the dead boy's father, goes wild, kicking, hitting and setting Vinicio on fire, until TV reporter Manolo Bonilla (Leguizamo) saves his life. Masterfully staged, it's a riveting sequence.

Vinicio is jailed for involuntary manslaughter and when Bonilla tries to interview him for his enormously popular Latin American news program "One Hour with the Truth," the accused offers an intriguing deal: If Bonilla uses his TV program to expose his wrongful imprisonment (and probably save him from being murdered in jail), Vinicio will provide information on The Monster's real identity. Although unsure if Vinicio is just using him to get out of prison, Bonilla agrees. And during numerous exchanges, some with TV cameras rolling, Bonilla toys with Vinicio's desire for freedom while Vinicio stokes Bonilla's desire to land the scoop of the year. Eventually, circumstantial evidence leads Bonilla to believe that Vinicio is The Monster.

"Cronicas" has interesting ideas but doesn't really do enough with them. Monolo and Vinicio's thrust and parry should have generated a lot more dramatic heat and crackling dialogue. Also, Monolo's willingness to betray his journalistic ethics to get the story is intriguing, but it's been done before. As for the performances, Alcazar is well-cast and quite good as Vinicio, but Cordero shows little interest in his supporting players, including a nosy detective and Bonilla's cameraman. Only Monolo's producer Marisa (Leonor Watling) makes an impact, although she spends most of her screen time looking sexy while talking on her cell phone to headquarters.

With two juicy lead roles on offer, combined with its heat-and-serve ethical dilemma, "Cronicas" seems tailor-made for an American remake. Another director could jumpstart an honest effort that is too dramatically slack to sustain more than average interest. Starring John Leguizamo, Leonor Watling, Damian Alcazar and Jose Maria Yazpik.. Directed and written by Sebastian Cordero. Produced by Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro, Bertha Navarre and Isabel Davalos. A Palm release. Drama. Rated R for violence, a scene of sexuality, and language. Running time: 111 min.

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