Colombia’s The Snitch Cartel, the country’s official submission to the 85th Academy Awards for “Best Foreign Language Film,” is a popcorn-feasting, action-adventure bonanza that doesn’t quite have the depth or gravitas necessary to score a nomination. However, I can certainly understand why Colombia chose this film to represent itself: Its fantastic production values and widespread international appeal (Mexico’s Adriana Barraza and America’s Tom Sizemore co-star alongside the film’s Colombian actors) make for one of the grandest collaborative efforts in 2012 world cinema. The Snitch Cartel is a commercial film through and through, and being highly-profiled by critics groups during this awards season will only widen its appeal to the masses, especially here in the United States. While I was certainly entertained by this movie based on the true story of Andrés Lopez, a former Colombian drug trafficker turned DEA informant, I couldn’t help but feel as though the film’s commercialism and “style-over-substance” approach slightly diminished its goal of historical reflection. The producers and filmmaker of The Snitch Cartel see this tale as a precautionary one, hoping that Lopez’s story — set during one of the country’s most violent time periods — can serve as a reminder to present day-Colombia (which has radically transformed for the better) of its destructive past that must never again be actualized. Somehow that message gets lost amidst the film’s shoot-em-up pandemonium.
Martin “Fresita” Gonzalez (the character based on Andrés Lopez) begins the film as a young boy who just wants to impress an upper-class girl, Sofia, hoping that he can steal her heart in spite of his diminutive position at the bottom of the social order. The only way Martin feels he can do this is by rising through the ranks in one of the many competing Colombian cartels. The Snitch Cartel is set between the late 1980s and early 90s, a period in which the most powerful figures — essentially the rulers of Colombia — were drug lords, whose political and social influence was unshakeable. In essence, these drug lords and traffickers were seen as local celebrities, the classical “bad boys” that any female who dreams of a lavish life for herself would instantly flock to. At this period in Colombia, you were given two options for your existence: the poor individual whose life was at the mercy of the trigger finger, or the drug thug who at least had the resources necessary to protect himself and his family (guns, ammo, a well-shielded home). Honestly, which choice sounds the most appealing given this is a country governed by a barrage of bullets?
Martin is played by an extraordinary Colombian actor, Manolo Cardona, who also serves as the film’s co-producer. Cardona delivers what is arguably one of the most sympathetic portrayals of a gangster that I’ve ever witnessed. From the beginning, there is a youthful innocence about Martin that is never dismantled by his line of work. Martin’s goals of marrying the woman of his dreams and paving a great life for the two of them are noble and inspiring despite his gruesome trade. All of the acting is very strong for the most part in The Snitch Cartel, but Cardona rises above his peers just a few inches more. You feel the weight of this story on his shoulders, and he carries it with wonderful grace. Cardona is far worthier than the cliché narrative he finds himself in, whose rags to riches, empire-building arc makes too many obvious parallels to Brian De Palma’s Scarface. I realize the film is based on a true story, but Hollywood conventions aren’t always necessary to springboard a biographical tale of one man’s arduous life. The romance element in this film seems forced, made worse by the fact that Sofia is a rather unlikable character, whose whiny nature is so not worth the fight. This isn’t the fault of actress Juana Acosta, because she does exactly what is asked of her by Director Carlos Moreno. The problem is that Sofia seems like a character plucked straight out of a telenovela, high shrieks and physically abusive temper in full swing. Just once, can somebody leave this hot-tempered Latina stereotype in the dust?
The action scenes are very well choreographed, with wonderful edits and pulpy gore that would thrill even the most highbrow action buffs. It feels odd to glorify the violence in a film that wants to speak so heavily against it, but lo and behold, that is The Snitch Cartel’s greatest contradiction. It’s very easy to find yourself nodding off during the slower moments in the film, moments that should be great because they allow room for character development, but these segments don’t play nearly as well as the action ones do. Stylistically, this is one of the most impressive international action movies I’ve seen of late, The Raid: Redemption excluded. While Cuba’s Juan of the Dead is an arguably better film, the craft here is much stronger thanks to Moreno’s adept directorial hand. One of the other noticeable gaffs in the film is that the “snitch” portion doesn’t come around until well past the halfway mark. The film is essentially Scarface: The Remake (although Martin is an angel compared to Pacino’s Tony Montana) until Martin’s best friend and Cartel associate, Pepe Cadena (Diego Cadavid), becomes an insufferable tyrant following the assassination of his kingpin brother. With tensions at an all-time high and Martin’s feelings of uncertainty within the cartel pecking order, Martin decides to jump ship and become a snitch for the DEA during an opportune moment in Mexico, the country where Martin oversees cartel activity.
Tom Sizemore, incredible as always, plays DEA Agent Sam Mathews who brings Martin into the fold as their informant, promising safety for his wife, Sofia, and asylum in Miami after he serves a small prison sentence. What I liked about Sizemore in The Snitch Cartel is that he never loses his “larger-than-life” toughness but also never mimics that overwrought, bad-ass cop shtick we are used to seeing in gangster flicks. Sizemore’s Agent Mathews is rather sensible, fair and surprisingly kind beneath that steely façade of his. In spite of his uncaring government, Mathews tries everything is his power to speed up the process of Martin’s release. Meanwhile, Adrianna Barraza plays the understanding grandmother of Martin, who supports him at all times without the slightest bit of judgement for his criminal dealings. Like my grumblings with Octavia Spencer’s limited role in Smashed, it’s bizarre how sparsely utilized the Academy Award-nominated actress is here. Barraza’s role is more of a cameo than the type of full-fledged performance that critics groups could latch onto (think: Ruby Dee in American Gangster), but for what little on-screen time she’s given, she’s rather grand.
In all, The Snitch Cartel is perfectly serviceable as a slice of international entertainment, one that will titillate the senses of action enthusiasts everywhere. Aside from perhaps the Colombian people themselves, the film lacks the emotional pull to really shake up the masses. A good example of a film that rallies the international community in outrage is Mexico’s Miss Bala, a movie that painfully reveals the greed and corruption within its country to maximum effect, and we never get that same kind of depth and complexity from The Snitch Cartel. The film is positioned as one of great importance, but these ambitions are shrouded by high-octane action, a formulaic Hollywood narrative and an abundance of visual pizzazz. The Snitch Cartel is a triumph for international commercialism, but a step back from the all-encompassing thematic power of a great foreign language production.
The Snitch Cartel is one of 71 films submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) for the “Best Foreign Language Film” Oscar®. The film is currently playing at Laemmle’s Monica Fourplex Theater in Santa Monica, California but will receive a national rollout by 11:11 Films in January 2013.
Check out the official trailer for The Snitch Cartel:
*please note that there are no English subtitles in the trailer, but Tom Sizemore should more or less clue non-Spanish speakers into the plot