Secuestro Express


Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

So common is the Venezuelan practice of (barely) organised street gangs kidnapping their wealthier compatriots for quickly extorted ransoms, it's been named the "secuestro express." Cheap enough for the victims' families to pay ip without involving the corrupt police, it's fairly guaranteed fast-tracked cash for the kidnappers and definitely assured nightmares for their victims. Happening throughout the day, every day, Jonathan Jakubowicz's homegrown film brings the phenomenon to the wider stage.

Carla (Mia Maestro) and Martin (Jean Paul Leroux) are young, well-heeled socialites who, after a druggy night's dancing, drift slightly out of their district into the waiting clutches of Trece (Carlos Molina), Budu (Pedro Perez) and Niga (Carlos Madera). Bundled at fist and gun point into their flash hey-look-at-me-and-then-mug-me 4x4, so begins Carla and Martin's personal ordeal, as they are bound, beaten and bounced around while the gang demand ransom from Carla's wealthy father (Ruben Blades).

The sheer frantic energy of the kidnapping's first half hour is truly absorbing. Brash, disorientating, aggressive, shaken, in your face, the handheld DVCAM brilliantly conveys the intensity of the couple's rocked world. The threat and fear in the cramped vehicle is palpable and compelling.

Slowly Jakubowicz widens the angles, only slightly, and things settle as kidnappers and kidnappees begin to share an eventful, if episodic, adventure. Robberies at cash points, visits to drug dens, attempted escapes, run ins with the police and some forceful exchanges all build a dramatic relationship that tends to drive such "power and control" scenarios - from Abduction to Midnight Run and anything in between.

The journey through the ghetto is always kept convincingly gritty, dirty and sweaty, with the digital medium well suited to conveying the heat, pugnacious spice and struggle of the streets. Indeed, there's Latin American blood pumping through this beast.

Jakubowicz hails from Caracas and the Panamanian Blades is a venerated veteran of movies, politics and even salsa albums and the film is executively produced by Elizabeth Avellan, who set up Los Hooligans Productions with Robert Rodriguez for El Mariachi and has pretty much produced everything he's made since. First timers Molina, Perez and Madera come straight from the ghetto and brutally bring their experiences to bear in their personalised performances. When they come on strong, the collective menace is pistol-whippingly authentic.

The Argentinean Maestro gives Carla a sultry intelligence and suitably tangible fear when required. The film orientates around her solid performance that is an able match to the terrorising chorus of Trece, Budu and Niga. Some may recognise her as Jennifer Garner's sister in TV's Alias, but her movie star is already rising with La Nina Santa, The Motorcycle Diaries and her ensemble role in the new Poseidon.

There's a determined strain of social realism pulsating through the piece, always letting you know that although the people we share the ordeal with are affluent upper-class types, this is a street story, bookended with real TV footage at the beginning (reminiscent of City Of God music doc Favela Rising) and each kidnapper's motivations expounded near the end. You're left in little doubt of the intelligently realised context.

However, despite these intentions some of the events Jakubowicz throws Carla's way always remind you that this is fictional, especially as some have a definite black-humoured sheen to them. His overall format tends to undermine its more serious pretensions. Also, having characters and locations introduced by over-stylised text and episodes paragraphed by a local radio DJ, broadcasting to "The Bolivian Republic of Marijuana," only serves to lift things away from the streets and make it look like a Latino homage to early Tarantino.

OK, it gives the film spunk and personality, but there's obviously a strong enough voice here - in front of and behind the camera - without the director trying to wave another flag for himself. Still, it's mostly an enjoyable roller coaster ride, both amusing and compelling at times, yet another example of the effectively idiosyncratic power of digital filmmaking.

Reviewed on: 09 Jun 2006
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Secuestro Express packshot
Gritty kidnap and ransom nightmare for two well-heeled socialites, dragged through the Venezuelan ghettos.
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Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz

Writer: Jonathan Jakubowicz

Starring: Mía Maestro, Ruben Blades, Carlos Julio Molina, Pedro Perez, Carlos Madera, Jean Paul Leroux, Dalila Colombo, Ermahn Ospina

Year: 2005

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Venezuela


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