Filipino actor Joel Torre is stellar as Rafael, a village big cheese who attempts to play amigo with the American occupiers, led by Lt. Compton (the sexy and excellent Garret Dillahunt from tv's Raising Hope) and his racist commander Col. Hardacre (Chris Cooper, superb as usual). This doesn't sit well with Rafael's brother Simon (Ronnie Lazaro) who leads a band of rebels, and the set up draws stark parallels to modern day conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Working with a 128 minute running time and a script in English, Spanish and Tagalog, Sayles is bound to trip up on his greater ambitions, and he does, but no sense in finding fault in a filmmaker striving for something felt and true. Years after his marvelous 1980 debut The Return of The Secaucus Seven, Sayles is still looking at the world through his own unique lens, and Amigo is a remarkable example of his skill. It stays with you.
"Amigo" is John Sayles in fine form in that he not only captures the rhythms and details of another time and place, with a little known bit of history which I had studied back in college, but also in telling a timeless story that admittedly does have a hokey and drawn out ending. He also economically employs scraps of dialogue to fill in the backstory on the various characters. A lot of that goes to his talent for telling a story from as many different angles as possible which keeps the villains to a minimum and not sugarcoating the actions of the insurrectionists. If there is one, then I would like to volunteer the colonel, as his actions will have repercussions for decades to come. It's not just the writing that is to be applauded but also an excellent use of crosscutting between similar activities as performed by different groups and the best metaphor ever for cockfighting. Throughout, it is the Filipino people that have the most sympathy here, as underlined by Rafael when he points out that they are fucked from both sides.
Not that this is a party. Set in the Philippines of 1900, with lots of subtitles, and rain, and sitting around, this movie won't be everyone's cup of tea. Once again, John Sayles has a lot to tell us, at the expense of making a "fun" movie. It's a critique of imperialism and prejudice, with lessons that are still valid over a century later. Sayles points a finger at the U.S. and unveils yet another not-too-proud moment in our history. But no one's off the hook. We see how the Spanish (who occupied the Philippines before we did) feel superior to the Filipinos, and how the Filipinos view the Chinese, and how Americans feel superior to everyone.... it's an f-ed up world, isn't it?
Chris Cooper is win-at-all-costs American nastiness personified, and he is good as always. Garret Dillahunt's character develops a bit of a conscience as he spends time with the villagers. We also get the sell-out Spanish priest, the wildly overmatched band of rebels, and Rafael, a.k.a. Amigo, trying to be all things to all sides. Sprinkled in is some romance, ambition, religion, generational divides, sibling conflict, and some culture lessons. And some gunshots.
Something toward the end didn't ring true, but it was a rare sour note in a satisfying, dare I say it--educational--movie. That very few people will go to see.