Independent filmmaker John Sayles has always been a one-man band.
He writes, directs and edits his movies, gravitating to topics rarely taken on by Hollywood: class conflict, race and American imperialism.
Sometimes his films are a heady brew of smart writing, compelling plots and standout performances, as in “Passion Fish” and “Lone Star.” Of late, though, not so much.
His newest, “Amigo,” sounds better in theory than it plays in practice.
This disappointingly listless historical drama is set in the rural Philippines during the barely remembered Philippine-American War (1899-1902). Following the American victory over the Spanish, the previous colonial rulers of the Pacific islands nation, a group of American soldiers are dispatched from Manila to occupy a small, outlying village. Their orders are to guard the town against, and to root out, nearby homegrown independence fighters.
Col. Hardacre (Chris Cooper, a Sayles stalwart), the commanding American Army officer, believes force is the only language that villagers will understand. Various members of his troop are more sympathetic to the villagers, but cross-cultural differences and divided loyalties, as well as language difficulties, undercut understanding on both sides.
Stuck in the middle is Rafael (Joel Torre, a veteran Filipino actor), the village’s mayor. He tries to get along with the Americans and comply with their often nonsensical demands but, at the same time, he doesn’t want to aid them in capturing or killing his brother, a guerilla leader, or his adolescent son, who has run off to join the rebels.
You don’t need a Ph.D in history to see the obvious parallels between the story that Sayles is telling in “Amigo” and more recent American conflicts. With a change of time periods and locales, the film could just as easily have been set in Viet Nam, Iraq or Afghanistan.
In all of these wars, townspeople just trying to lead ordinary lives find themselves tragically caught in the squeeze between American soldiers, most of whom have little familiarity with or understanding of the land they’re occupying, and zealous homegrown insurgents.
And maybe that’s the problem with “Amigo.” Though shot in the Philippines and often including dialogue in Tagalog, it never feels specific enough to transcend its schematic roots. Few characters register strongly as more than a type and the movie as a whole fails to catch hold with a viewer.
More power, though, to Sayles for at least trying to make a serious movie, and better luck next time.