Kernel Rating (out of 5):
Length: 128 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Age Appropriate for: 15+. Cursing and racist language, discussion of sexually transmitted diseases, a bloody cockfight between two roosters and a fair amount of revolutionary violence, like faces slashed open with a machete and people killed in conflict. The film’s language and violence are the most inappropriate for younger viewers, but it’s not a hard R; 15- and 16-year-olds should be OK.
John Sayles promises a film about the Philippine-American War in ‘Amigo,’ but you’re really getting a poor allegory for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite this flick’s name, Sayles is not your friend.
By Roxana Hadadi
Director and writer John Sayles wants audiences to think “Amigo” is a movie about the Philippine-American War during the beginning of the 20th century, but really it’s a movie about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and everything we’re doing wrong. If I wanted to see that movie, I would watch “The Hurt Locker.” Why does Sayles have to stumble so badly into the “U.S. wars in the Middle East are bad” territory?
If “Amigo” were actually about the U.S. conflict with Spain, who had colonial rule over Cuba and the Philippines for years, and the war the U.S. got into with the Filipino rebels after driving the Spanish out, the movie would be far more interesting. If the film had more context about the Philippines’ relationship with Spain, how its revolutionary movement was shaped during hundreds of years, why the U.S. decided to get involved and how the Filipino population would eventually fight against the U.S., too, “Amigo” would make more sense and feel less impersonal.
But the film deals mainly in stereotypes, allusions and gloss-overs. Most of the American soldiers are racist hillbillies, the Filipino population is too silly or too weak to understand what’s really going on, the Spanish friar is a jerk with contempt both for the Filipinos whose souls he’s supposed to save and the Americans who come to take the country from his people, and the rebels are kids who want to be part of something but aren’t quite sure what they’ve gotten themselves into. If that all sounds like harsh depictions of roles filled in the war on terror now, you’ve got the right idea. Even as we’re meant to feel rage, sadness or sympathy for these characters, it’s hard to muster up much when we’re not getting a real documentation of what happened in their lives; they’re just being used as stand-ins for commentary on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that Sayles for some reason didn’t want to do in a movie about those actual conflicts.
“Amigo” takes place in a barrio in San Isidro, a rice-growing area of the island Luzon; at the “beginning of last century” (Sayles is infuriatingly vague about specific dates), American troops came to the Philippines after the country pledged war on Spain, and “they decided to stay.” As the Filipino independence movement led by President Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, the Insurrectos, switched their wrath from the departing Spanish to the incoming Americans, U.S. troops set up in villages to fight back.
When they barge into the barrio, the young, dumb soldiers don’t care about the community’s slow pace or cultural customs; they just call them “monkeys,” round them up and single out Rafael (Joel Torre), head of the barrio, as their information man. Spanish missionary Padre Hidalgo (Yul Vazquez) warns the Americans that Rafael’s brother is the leader of the area’s guerilla outfit, but Rafael insists that he is an “amigo,” a friend to the Americans, to protect his people. He soon begins to realize that role may not be such a good one, though, after Col. Hardacre (Chris Cooper) orders Lt. Compton (Garret Dillahunt) to settle his garrison in the barrio and fight back against the rebels. Stuck in the middle between his brother’s forces — which his son ran away to join — and the invading Americans, Rafael has to perform a balancing act that could get everyone he knows killed.
How terrible are the American soldiers? So terrible. Sayles make them as idiotic and unbearable as possible; some choice lines include “I was supposed to be over here killing Spaniards” and a description of the Filipino population as a “mix between a Mexican and a Chinaman … a stunted race.” They’re all flat, one-dimensional characters; only Lt. Compton grows during the time they spend with the Filipinos, but Dillahunt’s fine performance is an exception. No one else has anything to work with.
And it’s not like Sayles short-changes the Americans in favor of the Filipinos; no, no. Torre as Rafael, like Dillahunt as Lt. Compton, has a multi-layered role and effectively conveys the stress and danger of his situation, but most everyone else is just a prop. Instead, Sayles spends time injecting the film with a bunch of stuff that fulfills his war-on-terrorism commentary but is jarring when compared with the rest of the plot. For example, Col. Hardacre smirks to Lt. Compton, “We’re supposed to be winning their hearts and minds,” but that tactic wasn’t even around until the Vietnam War; the same character rages on about the importance of “American control” and the usefulness of torture, plot elements that similarly don’t click into place and sully the whole film as a result.
If you’re making a movie about a major historical event, shouldn’t that film be somewhat, you know, historical? Making a film about a war and drawing parallels to current situations is fine, if you can pull it off subtly and effectively, but Sayles can’t — and “Amigo” is dreary, overly long and basically forgettable because of his ham-fisted, heavy-handed ways.