Coming from Everardo Valerai Gout – an assistant director on Romeo + Juliet – this Mexican crime drama features dizzying visuals, kinetic action sequences and the shakiest of shaky-cams, but obfuscates its narrative simplicity until it becomes over-long and anti-climactic.
The plots are familiar – a kidnapping, a ransom, a city in the grip of gangs and corruption with one cop launching himself into the task of bringing it to rights. The difference here is the setting. Mexico City is stunning, both in terms of visuals and its population. The film opens with a voice-over, followed by zooming, vertigo-inducing helicopter shots of the city. It’s like Peter Jackson decided to remake End of Watch while addicted to carnitas.
We are then introduced to two of the main characters: Doroteo and Lupe. Doroteo and his brother are children, forced to strip and held at gunpoint by Lupe, who has taken them out to a shack outside the city, numerous wooden crosses planted in the ground outside. It is 2002. Lupe is a young policeman, using fear and intimidation to prevent kids from getting more heavily involved in a life of crime.
This sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Expect violence, kinetic camera movement, and a sense of palpable unease. The movie is set across three football World Cups (2002, 2006, 2010), and the football element is interwoven well, beyond successfully conveying the fervour that grips Mexico during the competition. The Chief of Police comments that criminals and police lower their guard during the tournament (resulting in the titular Days of Grace), and important bonds are made via a shared love of the game. Football isn’t regarded as a geeky subject matter, but it invokes the same passion, enthusiasm for lists, and large-scale cosplaying tendencies as many a science-fiction programme.
Football brings people together, providing a respite from the fearsome gang warfare (day to day life in Mexico City is depicted from various angles – middle class houses and offices, backstreet brothels, sports clubs in nooks and crannies under main roads). Crime is depicted as a cyclical scourge, nigh on inescapable. As a Catholic country, shrines appear on walls throughout. Crucifixes adorn makeshift graveyards and yet; football is the religion that appears to be the source of grace. It’s subtly done.
What isn’t as subtle are the action sequences. Visually, they’re bold, involving, and intense. The score (featuring Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Massive Attack and others) amps up aggressive rhythms and folk instrument’s drones provide contrast. When the camera is static, director of photography Luis David Sansans’ visuals are of striking, dramatic city backdrops, or dusty plains. When it is moving, it’s like you’re in a first-person shooter directed by Alfonso Cuaron.
There are several long shots where the camera roves in and around the action, as if trying to seek out a better view by climbing over lorries, into houses, and out of windows. Police raids are captured in close up, gun barrels jutting into view as officers strafe and weave. Point-of-view shots from a kidnapped man make good use of disorientating blurs and spinning, light permeating the filter of the bag over his head. When people run, the camera is pumped up and down as if being carried by someone following as fast as they can. If you don’t like hand-held camera work, best avoid this one altogether. If you’re intrigued about film-making, specifically how to generate tension and energy, the technical side of this movie makes it an essential watch.
Also, someone should really show this to J.J. Abrams, as this film shows you how natural light and lens flare can really add to the atmosphere when used creatively and sparingly, and not because you want to stamp a visual motif that you didn’t invent over your remake of somebody else’s film.
Not content with setting a story across eight years, writer/director Valerai Gout gives minor characters related sub-plots, and keeps the twists and turns coming. The problem being, like a Sunday League winger whose best days are behind him, you can see all of these coming. After around ninety minutes the editing starts breaking up the interweaving strands to the point where some fairly big reveals have their impacts negated by the choppy narrative. What could be extremely powerful is lessened due to the brevity of a scene bookended by events from four years in the future.
Plus, at one hundred and thirty three minutes, Days of Grace feels like an event that would benefit from an episodic format. Despite its length, there are characters that seem to get short shrift, like Lupe’s wife and newborn child, or the daughter of a kidnap victim. Aspects seem curtailed, but the script is adept at seeding future events, allowing for satisfying moments of recognition later on. The film both justifies and wastes its length.
Overall, momentum is lost by a drawn-out and easily-anticipated ending, but while the fun lasts you have an inventive and striking crime drama, reminiscent of City of God in its depiction of South American street life. While not being especially gory, its violence is brutal and occasionally savage. In trying to cram in too many ideas it may have sacrificed the very impact it was hoping to create.
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