Manos Sucias, writer-director Josef Kubota Wladyka’s debut feature, strikes familiar notes about young men entrapped within a perpetual cycle of violence. This theme is literally configured into a “road” narrative involving Delio (Cristian James Abvincula) and Jacobo (Jarlin Javier Martinez), two Colombian drug runners from Buenaventura charged with charting the local seas to make a delivery. Delio is the novice to Jacobo’s hardened but humanized sage, who’s seen the recent death of his son at the hands of paramilitaries who patrol the terrain with more menace than benevolence. In fact, Wladyka’s film recalls the character dramas of Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society, but is saddled with the bleak, realist aesthetics of contemporary “street crime” works like City of God or Gomorrah. As such, Manos Sucias falters in feeling pieced together from any number of predecessors, but the convincing, core relationship between men without recourse to an alternative means of sustenance salvages much of the more hackneyed, even exploitative trappings.
Wladyka initially displays few qualms over fetishizing violent archetypes, as in an opening sequence that’s replete with stock, low-angle shots of nameless, gun-toting baddies. Faceless too, which proves problematic for much of the film’s duration, as characters other than the leads are relatively interchangeable, routine, and treated without interest beyond their roles as motivating, expositional forces. Delio has a son and a girlfriend, but neither receives explication or development outside of a single scene; meanwhile, Jacobo watches his son play soccer, musing to a friend about the boy’s chances to play for Barcelona in the future. These passages would be efficient and economical were they not so dispassionately functional and rendered with little specificity to the geographical dynamics at play.
Wladyka and co-writer Alan Blanco manage sporadic, intriguing conversations between characters regarding soccer and music, which helps to thoroughly develop a complementarity between conceptions of past and future as the only means of liberation from the present. Delio’s adamancy that Pelé is the greatest footballer of all time drives much of his passions, as he vociferously argues against other “greats” like Zico or Maradona, only to be told by his business partner, Miguel (Hadder Blandon), that his preferences can be explained along racial lines. Miguel’s boastful racism resonates with an earlier conversation between Jacobo and a friend concerning their hesitancy to move to Bogota, since “all black people get to do there is clean shit out of toilets.” These racial tensions largely come and go, however, as Wladyka abandons them in the film’s second half in the name of attempted hair-raising, as Delio and Jacobo become bogged down in search of gasoline and a misplaced hitch for their boat.
Manos Sucias seems to understand its title (which translates to “dirty hands”) broadly as a reference to the illegal, dangerous, and imprisoning nature of drug running, which is a shame, since a more interesting dynamic exists between the ways characters are seen constructing their lives through myth instead of a present course of action. What’s more fascinatingly soiled throughout remains at the film’s margins, with the characters’ overriding interests in cultural ascendancy, forged through an obsession with past glories, manifesting as a dream apropos future potential, but without an ability to diagnose a present state of affairs. Similarly, governmental ubiquity translates as military force and repression, but Wladyka is ultimately unable to reconcile these complex dynamics any further than with a glimpse toward their fundamentally destructive effects.