- - Thursday, September 1, 2011

John Sayles‘ “Amigo” is a war movie that doesn’t take sides - except against war itself.

Set in a tiny village during the Philippine-American War near the start of the 20th century, it’s equally critical of American violence toward the locals and Filipino rebel cruelty toward their own people. Even more surprisingly, it’s equally sympathetic to the soldiers caught up in the battle on both sides - leaders and grunts alike.

Mr. Sayles‘ decision to humanize both sides is the film’s greatest strength, but may also be its most glaring weakness. Clever, unassuming, and determinedly understated, its biggest flaw may be its commitment to announcing its own evenhandedness.

For the first few minutes, “Amigo” plays like a quiet riff on Mel Gibson’s Mayan action epic, “Apocalypto.” Like Mr. Gibson’s self-financed, subtitled film, “Amigo” starts with a fond depiction of simple village life, this time in the Phillipines around 1900. Although a war surrounds them, the villagers carry on with their lives. They tend crops, raise families, and squabble as small communities inevitably do.

Most of all, however, they want to avoid entangling themselves in the violent rebellion raging through their country. Rafael (Joel Torre), the town’s tax collector and unofficial leader, has already seen his brother join the rebels.

It doesn’t take long, however, before the war comes to them. American soldiers barge into Rafael’s village on the hunt for a rebel general. Soon, Rafael finds himself torn between the two sides - his brother’s rebel forces, and the American troops who’ve occupied his town.

Mr. Gibson’s movie used a similar setup to launch a visually potent revenge saga. But Mr. Sayles offers something smaller in scope.

An independent filmmaker with a long history of low-key, low-budget critical successes, Mr. Sayles has never been a particularly energetic director. And despite “Amigo’s” wartime setting, and the presence of a few violent sequences, he maintains his typically unruffled approach. He’s a lot more concerned with capturing the nuances of what people say than the visceral chaos of battle.

Mr. Sayles has always been more of a wordsmith than a visualist. He finances his films partly by working as one of Hollywood’s highly-paid, behind-the-scenes script-doctors (he did rewrites on “Apollo 13” and a script that eventually became “E.T.”). So it’s no surprise that “Amigo’s” story is both carefully structured and lined with clever dialogue.

His perfectly picked cast certainly helps. Mr. Torre gives Rafael a sense of a tired community devotion that’s mirrored by Garrett Delahunt, the American lieutenant stuck commanding the local troops, who walks a tightrope between the conflicting calls of decency and duty. Chris Cooper lends his squinty eyes and suppressed ferocity to a cameo role as a callous American commander.

Occasionally, Mr. Sayles leans too heavily on repetitious, film-school literary techniques. The first time he cross-cuts between rebel forces and their American counterparts to suggest their many similarities, it comes across as a nice, if slightly obvious, editing-room touch. The third time, it comes across like a politician who can only repeat the same talking point.

Still, it’s a point that may bear repeating. There are few winners in war. But it does sometimes make for good movies - and “Amigo” is one of them.

★★★½

TITLE: “Amigo”

CREDITS: Written and directed by John Sayles

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