It’s nearly impossible to discern crook from cop in the handheld, trigonometric angles, and slice-and-dice editing of La Soga’s hot-pursuit introduction. Two thuggish, sun-spectacled men—one of them the titular, family-oriented protagonist—chase a destitute, small-time drug peddler through the dust-clinging mugginess of Santiago, providing ample time for the camera to adumbrate the uniquely urban jungle-slum of the Dominican Republic city before firing a didactic bullet through the dealer’s heart. The flourish of predictable, putative sadism aside, by the film’s denouement this opening proves an unlikely foundation for structural cleverness; as we become aware of the above-table municipal affiliations of this pair of badass wannabes, the old-hat corruption-on-both-coin-sides motif is revived through a series of obfuscated motives and meta stereotypes that leave us feeling like bewildered bystanders without a sympathetic surrogate.
Unfortunately, we’re carried through this uniquely unfamiliar interpretation of crime-world hierarchy by a fatally dampening vendetta plot that feels like a defiantly rusty gasp for old-world filial values in an otherwise unceremonious universe. The main character, Luisito “La Soga” (Manny Perez, who also wrote the script and produced), is a de facto hit man for the D.R. government; official interactions with his superior, the smoothly grim-faced General Colon (Juan Fernández), are even underscored with laughably ersatz Gordon Willis light cues that divide the palatial shadows of their city hall’s opulent, wood-carved innards. And we learn—through a series of gritty, digitally bleached flashbacks—that La Soga kills not out of upstanding civic duty, but as a grudge-holding golem, tirelessly searching for the narcotics trafficker that murdered his ranch-operating father during a heated roadside dispute.
The unrelenting, cock-eyed folksiness-cum-inner-city edge of this backstory informs much of the movie’s disemboweled milieu of social decay, an intriguing blend of rural totems and streetwise viciousness that feels genuine even when it banally juxtaposes porcine jugular stabbing with bad-cop manslaughter. Indeed, some images entirely transcend the inanity of their narrative context and approach cult poetry. By way of abstraction, this curiously sticky imagery evinces much less stumblingly than La Soga’s lust for vengeance the imposed myopia at the heart of Latin American delinquency. When both the law and its adversaries are encrusted with avarice, how does one choose a winning side from the sub-proletariat dirt? Writer Perez and director Josh Crook, however, mute the nuance of this implied challenge by mistakenly asking us to believe that the moustache and chin stubble-sporting La Soga is unaware of his employers’ less-than-honorable modus operandi. When he’s forced to spare the life of a pedophile who’s paid off the appropriate parties, the fissures formed in his stalwart ethics are aggravatingly melodramatic. Even La Soga’s morals are elastic, after all; he lies to an old girlfriend-from the block (Denise Quiñones) about his occupation to appear more attractively earthy.
As the story spills over into New York City with an international manhunt for the elusive and toxic crime lord Rafa (Paul Calderon), the filmmakers’ virgin, ham-fisted charm begins to gleam more profusely. An oddity of a supervillian, Rafa’s mismatched characterizations bear the inimitable luster of aesthetic error; he resembles a freshly-botoxed Lee “Scratch” Perry sans the flamboyant headgear, whispers rhetorical questions brimming with off-kilter social subtext (“Have you ever seen the devil, faggot?”), and points a dainty gun at victims who cower before his sinister reputation. But by the time Rafa is delivered to La Soga via a plot-pinching deus ex machina, and we discover the illustrious points at which their paths have already crossed, he’s surrendered most of his piquancy to the stratified fatherly angst that overwhelms the third act. Their showdown, seemingly inspired by, and misinterpreted from, the sober, paternal nonviolence of Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is the movie’s final foolhardy crescendo; we know La Soga’s yawn of a confrontation with the exposed General Colon occurs 15 minutes later from uncontrollable clock-checking. The gradual unraveling of La Soga’s singular cultural environment from the blissful confusion of the first scene to this conflict-resolving dud suggests a rare flaw; navigating such a vast, sickly shade of subcutaneous moral gray may require more confident messiness.