'Road to Juarez': Film Review
Debut director David Ponce de Leon goes south of the border with this rites-of-passage action thriller set in the badlands of Mexico
A low-budget labor of love for first-time writer-director David Ponce de Leon, Road to Juarez is a Mexican-American coming-of-age crime thriller with bilingual dialogue and a bicultural cast. Loosely inspired by real events, the plot is time-scrambled and non-linear, hinting at Quentin Tarantino levels of post-modern playfulness that sadly never materialize. It was shot in less than three weeks, with California desert towns mostly standing in for Mexico, though extra footage was added from a brief second-unit foray to Mexico City.
A former commercials and shorts director, Ponce de Leon at least deserves credit for his resourcefulness, though he wins no prizes for originality or film-making chops. With a limited theatrical opening later this week, Road to Juarez is a grindingly predictable mash-up of tired B-movie tropes that seems unlikely to linger long on its journey from big screen to budget DVD store.
Baby-faced and likeable Walter Perez stars as Jacob Saenz, a young Mexican-American raised by his single father in LA, where he dabbles in petty street crime with his overweight best friend Rob (Charley Koontz). Initially harmless juvenile pranks, the duo's illegal activities move up a gear when they start working for Rob's uncle Doug (William Forsythe), a grizzled gringo cowboy with underworld connections.
The trio soon have a sweet business stealing and re-selling equipment from Hollywood movie sets, but when that turns sour, Doug coerces the boys into a colorful scheme involving Mexican drug barons, mountainous lines of cocaine, and the cross-border smuggling of stuffed animals. What could possibly go wrong? Though Jacob is initially reluctant to get too deep into crime, the opportunity to pay for his father's urgent cancer treatment stiffens his resolve.
Relocating to a luxurious fortified villa in the Mexican desert, events take a dangerous swerve when Jacob picks up flirtatious vibes from his glamorous hostess, gangster's wife Mirella (Romina Peniche). The smuggling plan soon falls apart when mutinous henchman Ivan (Adal Ramones) kidnaps both Rob and Mirella's son Fito (Joshua Ponce de Leon), demanding a huge ransom. A western-style chase across the parched landscape climaxes in a bloody spiral of personal betrayals and fatal shoot-outs. Jacob survives, but further shocks await him when he returns home to LA.
Almost every aspect of Ponce de Leon's western feels amateurish and derivative. The style is pedestrian, the action labored, the dialogue wooden, the performances weak, the characters mono-dimensional and the story glutinous with pulp-thriller cliche. Not since the hardboiled heyday of Robert Mitchum and Humphey Bogart has anybody gotten away with straight-faced lines like "you better stop thinking like a two-bit punk, this is the big time."
The melodrama levels here are also right off the scale, but with none of the self-aware irony that redeems more skilled directors like Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez. Drenched in the inevitable soundtrack of mariachi-style music, the Mexican characters mostly divide into sizzling senoritas or greasy-haired, unshaven, cackling stage villains. A running joke about Rob's weight problem soon becomes tiresome and grating, a throwback to Burt Reynolds repeatedly using his regular sidekick Dom DeLuise as a cheap comedy punchbag.
This soapy and absurd film might almost have worked as an overcooked genre parody, if the humor was intentional. Instead, Road to Juarez is simply formulaic and pointless, a dusty dirt track to nowhere.
Production companies: Marc Production Enterprises, 8th Street Films, Fungi Films, Millennium Crop Entertainment
Starring: Walter Perez, William Forsythe, Charley Koontz, Romina Peniche, Adal Ramones
Director, screenwriter: David Ponce de Leon
Producers: Scott Rosenfelt, Cesar Ramirez
Cinematographer: Jonathan West
Editors: David Ponce de Leon, Ellen Goldwasser
Music: Luis Perez
Unrated, 84 minutes