Saturday, May 9, 2015

THE SNITCH CARTEL (El Cartel de los Sapos, 2011)

Carlos Moreno's film is based on a based-on-true-events miniseries that was a big hit on Colombian TV. Moreno and his screenwriters presumably opened the story up considerably with extensive location work and some impressive action sequences. Whatever its basis in Colombia's violent history of drug trafficking, the story follows a recognizable Scorsesean rise-and-fall pattern, only here the protagonist never gets high on his own supply. Martin, aka El Fresita (Manolo Cardona) seems rather straitlaced for a drug dealer. He's really a romantic, pining after his dream girl Sofia (Juana Acosta) since childhood. He has a mildly Pescian sidekick, the impulsive, motormouthed Pepe (Diego Cadavid), whose family ties to a Cali cartel don give him and Martin a fast track to the top echelons of crime. On a more Coppolesque note, the film opens with Pepe's wedding, complete with a gun-toting dwarf in a gift package. He's just a joke, actually, but the joke goes sour when the dwarf gets hit with real bullets and the wedding comes under attack.

The pragmatic Fresita and the entrepreneurial Pepe -- he can spew out the math proving how the cartel will profit from his schemes -- ship cocaine to Mexico and later directly to the U.S., dealing dangerously with Mexican gangster Modesto (Pedro Armendariz jr in one of his last roles). While they make money up north, things fall apart at home. The destruction of Pablo Escobar's Medellin cartel only results in the Cali leaders turning on one another. All the while, the DEA (represented by guest American Tom Sizemore) encourages cartel members to turn "sapo" and inform on each other. Once Pepe's uncle is killed, the odious Cabo (Robinson Diaz) takes power, resenting Fresita for past slights despite his moneymaking ability. While Pepe becomes little more than Cabo's flunky, Fresita is targeted for death despite turning down an offer to join the so-called snitch cartel. Barely escaping a Mexico City hit, Fresita finally turns informer to save his life. He also hopes the DEA will protect Sofia, who having married him will be Target Number One for Cabo's revenge. However, Sofia has gradually plumbed the depths of Fresita's life, having followed him to New York to see him blow away a would-be hijacker, and now wants no part of his Miami safe house and his seven-figure bank account. The film is open-ended, suggesting that Martin still hopes to win Sofia back after his abbreviated prison stay. I don't know if this single film adapted both El Cartel TV series, but one way of another there hasn't been a cinematic sequel that I know of.

Cartel de los Sapos has a charismatic cast and is slickly shot with a genre consciousness and film-buff sensibility that can throw a Third Man homage, among possible others, into the mix. There's arguably nothing original to it, apart from the setting for someone unfamiliar with South American cinema, but the picture is effectively entertaining and the climactic running gunfight between Fresita and Cabo's gang is very well done. Cardona makes a good tragic antihero, complemented by the unforgiving Acosta, and Cadavid as Pepe gives an interesting performance as someone who proves to be less than you expect in every regard. Pepe's dwindling away to relative insignificance, except for a spiteful late attack on Fresita when both are in prison, may seem like a weakness in a script that had built him up so much, but it convincingly conveys, if that was the intention, Pepe's essential weakness, the hollow core of his bluster. As the pig-loving Cabo, the massively moustachioed Diaz looks the perfect villain, if also a moron, and his performance lives up to his visual. Everything falls together to make Snitch Cartel worth recommending to fans of global crime cinema.

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