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There are plenty of guns but few actual shots fired in 600 Miles (600 Millas), an artfully handled if somewhat underwhelming debut from writer-producer Gabriel Ripstein. Starring Tim Roth as an ATF agent who lands on the wrong side of the border, this low-key and realistic thriller features a few standout sequences but never ratchets up enough tension in its portrayal of a deadly cartel flare-up. A premiere slot in Berlin’s Panorama Special section should yield some interest overseas, where the film could hit its mark on VOD and in select art house engagements.
Ripstein is the son of Mexican auteur Arturo Ripstein (Deep Crimson, No One Writes to the Colonel), though his approach to genre is less sensational and more of the gritty stylized variety, recalling at times fellow countryman Amit Escalante’s 2013 Cannes entry Heli (minus that film’s infamous flaming penis).
The opening section, which follows arms trafficker Arnulfo (Kristyan Ferrer) and his American supplier, Carson (Harrison Thomas), plays out like a raw docudrama on acquiring high-powered assault rifles in the backwaters of Arizona. Trekking from one gun store or show to another, where Carson effortlessly purchases several AR-15 machine guns and ammo, – though he gets carded when he tries to buy cigarettes – the two build up a small arsenal that Arnulfo then transports down south to his Narco uncle (Noe Hernandez, Miss Bala).
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During a second gun run, the boys find themselves ambushed by prowling ATF operative Hank Harris (Roth), who’s been tracking firearms purchased in the area. But Hank slips up and then winds up bound and gagged in the back of Arnuflo’s SUV, with the latter seeing no other option than to take his captive back across the border.
From then on it’s essentially a two-hander where co-writers Ripstein and Issa Lopez (Pulling Strings) toss in a few good twists but never develop an intriguing pair of characters, with the Mexican and the American saying few words to each other, even if we wind up learning enough backstory to stick with them till the end. Mostly though, 600 Miles doesn’t generate the level of nail-biting suspense one expects here, languishing in lengthy driving scenes and other bits of mundane storytelling.
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The slow-cinema technique does yield its rewards in the third act, when Ripstein and his DP Alain Marcoen (who works regularly with the Dardenne Bros.) stage two action sequences in extended long-takes, one with a fixed camera and the other following Harris and Arnulfo as they try to survive during a cramped interior shootout. The violence is jarring and candidly staged – far from the kind of “Mexican standoffs” that populate many a Hollywood flick and closer to how things could actually happen.
Yet such authenticity isn’t enough to seal a narrative that feels too thin in the end, even if strong performances help sustain a contracted 85-min running time. Ferrer (Days of Grace) is especially good as a young man in way over his head from the get-go, while Roth keeps it real as a lonesome lawman with little left to fight for. It’s a turn that recalls the cagey gunmen he played two decades ago in Reservoir Dogs and Little Odessa, though this time he seems too wise and weary to get shot at.
Production companies: Lucia Films
Cast: Tim Roth, Kristyan Ferrer, Harrison Thomas, Noe Hernandez
Director: Gabriel Ripstein
Screenwriters: Gabriel Ripstein, Issa Lopez
Producers: Michel Franco, Gabriel Ripstein, Moises Zonana
Executive producers: Tim Roth, Fernando Perez Gavilan
Director of photography: Alain Marcoen
Production designer: Carlos Jacques
Costume designer: Claudia Sandoval
Editors: Gabriel Ripstein, Santiago Perez Rocha
Casting directors: Natalia Beristain, J.C. Cantu
Sales agent: NDM
No rating, 85 minutes