The Dominican Republic boasts many achievements in addition to its natural beauty, but film arguably is not one of them. That’s why “La Soga” (The Noose), a 2009 effort by helmer Josh Crook, which bows on 13 August stateside, comes as such a welcome surprise. In the Spanish-speaking world one tends to think instead of Spain, Argentina, and Mexico as hotbeds of cinema.
The tightly wrought thriller is both in Spanish and English with appropriate subtitles. Its 102 minutes virtually fly by — no seat squirming here. Action takes place largely in the Dominican Republic and in Washington Heights, New York, an area populated largely by Dominican expats.
The scary aspect of “La Soga” is that the screenplay (Manny Perez) is based on true events. Plot is told in flashbacks within a flashback, a tricky bit of storytelling for which kudos must go to Perez and Crook, who also gets editor credit.
Plot is straightforward, but pic’s flashbacks within flashback device aids in building suspense. It’s Hollywood ending is almost a total surprise. Writer Manny Perez is Luisito, the son of a hardworking butcher (Nelson Baez). Luisito would rather play with the livestock than slaughter them. As a child Luisito is played by Fantino Fernandez. He has a childhood crush (reciprocated) on Jenny (Leslie Cepeda as the child) played later as an adult by the stunning ex Miss Unverse, Puerto Rican Denise Quiñones.
Eventually Luisito gets his mojo up and asks dad to teach him to slaughter a pig. It is not a scene for the faint of heart or for animal lovers such as your critic, or for Luisito. The elder Luisito is a vegetarian. That little twist not only aids in character development but it does it so seamlessly that it also adds one of pic’s touches of comic relief.
Luisito’s dad is killed in an argument with two drug lords driving a pristine Mercedes 560 SL. They run down his goat. This is pic’s pivotal moment. Luisito never forgets who they are. Now, the boy as family breadwinner (thank Heaven that he learned enough butchery before the murder) holds a grudge. When he sees one of the killers outside the butcher shop, he takes an ice pick used to slaughter pigs and goes for the guy’s heart. It works.
Arrested, he is sought out in jail by the head of the Dominican secret police (Juan Fernández) as General Colon. The latter has big plans for Luisito. Any child who can kill in cold blood like that can be useful. The general trains the boy to become a government assassin. Thanks to the flashback mischagass we don’t find this out until about halfway through the picture, but it doesn’t matter. Dribbling out backstory is an old trick that goes back long before cinema — August Strindberg and Maurice Maeterlinck were among its first masters over a century ago.
Fast forward to the present. Luisito is “La Soga,” a government agent known only by that name. He and a partner (Tavo, played by Hemky Madera) cruise the Dominican Republic killing bad guys for the secret police. These are summary executions. Many of them are deported from the US strictly to meet that fate. It’s a dirty war not much different from Northern Ireland in the 1980s. Eposition is cleverly handled by Joseph Lyle Taylor as America’s bag man, Simon Burr, and Margo Martindale as Flannigan, his handler. The General is getting paid by the US to take care of guys the US cannot convict in criminal court. The General is also on the take from some Dominican criminals. Some of these creeps end up on the hit list. One of them, a fat pedophile played by Cruzmonty, gets his balls cut off by La Soga despite a last minute confirmation that he has paid his bribe to the General. It’s the pedophilia that pissed off Luisito. But Luisito’s real motivation to remain “La Soga” is the overwhelming desire to nail Rafa (Paul Calderon) the leader of the pair who killed his dad.
Meanwhile, Luisito has rekindled his childhood romance with Jenny using a device virtually lifted from “The Sopranos.” Anyone remember the episode where Dr. Melfi’s Jaguar needs repair? At first all goes well. But as she gets drawn further into Luisito’s new world, she recoils.
Luisito wants to retire as a government assassin although Rafa remains in his sights. Dialogue makes it clear that Luisito has stuck it out as long as he has only to nail Rafa. The General objects. It’s a tad like retiring from the Mob. Only a few people have done it and lived to tell about it. What ensues is sort of a Mexican standoff within a Mexican standoff.
Pic has almost a double payoff. Crook could have ended it before the final reel. As your critic has written, stretching a picture beyond its “natural end” is a tricky job. Most of the time it doesn’t work. But Crook’s path to the Hollywood ending is ingenious, taking full advantage of modern media publicity.
“La Soga” is unrated. It opens August 13 in the US. Tech credits are more than adequate. Subtitles get the point across for both speakers of English and Spanish. And little if any celluloid is wasted on baloney. Animal lovers, children, and folks with weak stomachs would do well to avoid it. The rest can consider the ticket price money well spent on a gripping thriller.