Amigo is a companion piece to John Sayles' new novel, A Moment in the Sun - or perhaps it's the other way around.
While it's easy to admire Sayles' acuity in locating a metaphor for America's preemptive war in Iraq and endless struggle in Afghanistan, Amigo is slow-going. Set during the Philippine-American war (1899-1902), it's too schematic and not nearly dramatic or tense enough, even when it's showing us things that should touch a nerve or an emotion.
In the film, an American battalion marches in and takes over a small, agrarian village in a remote Philippines province. Their reason for being there: They know that rebel forces live in the jungle nearby - and that the villagers are related to the rebel chieftain.
But, as in Vietnam - or Afghanistan or Iraq - the Americans are woefully unprepared to deal with the villagers on their own level. They have no knowledge of the culture and no interest in it. There is the assumption that these backward people should simply assimilate American manners and attitudes, rather than vice versa.
Sayles has never been a filmmaker who was overly concerned with plot. Rather, his films tend to be sprawling character studies, in which the smaller pieces eventually build into a bigger picture. Think City of Hope or Sunshine State, films where the story was the characters.
Here, however, he is hampered by a cast of young actors who, simply, aren't very good. They play these green-apple American soldiers as though they were college students plucked from the quad and thrust into uniform and told to act.
Only the ever-reliable Garret Dillahunt and Chris Cooper seem to understand the notion of creating a character and playing it with dynamics that show a range of feeling and consciousness. The local non-actors, pressed into service to play the villagers, are also much better than the younger American actors.
Ultimately, that lack of dynamics slows and hobbles Amigo, a film whose sense of absurdist tragedy is implied without ever actually engaging the audience.
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