Cannes film review: "Days of Grace"

Fri May 20, 2011 7:41pm EDT

CANNES, France (Hollywood Reporter) - A breathlessly paced adrenaline rush, "Days of Grace" is the second violent film in Cannes this year (after "Miss Bala," which is mild in comparison) depicting Mexico as a lawless land of drug lords, kidnappers, and corruption so endemic it goes "all the way up to the top." This Out of Competition entry written, directed and produced by Everardo Gout is a first feature full of cruelty and only conventional character development. The hero, a handsome young cop, is as ruthlessly macho as the snarling, tattooed killers he battles, yet the film's pace is so furious, there's little time to worry about the ethics of sympathizing with him as he goes about breaking arms and cracking skulls. Heavy testosterone content earmarks it as a genre film for the male teen demographic, for whom it has the energy, if not the stars, to break out of Latino markets.

The action takes place in 2002, 2006 and 2010, cleverly denoted by the World Cup soccer matches on everybody's TV. During the games, we are told, both cops and criminals let down their guard. But not Lupo Esparza (Tenoch Huerta), a champion of justice who will stop at nothing to catch his man. This tall, muscular young cop exudes intensity and honesty, a family man with a big smile and an innate aversion to lawbreakers. He's characterized in a dynamic opener in which he mistreats two small kids for pushing marijuana. For their own good.

Unfortunately the lesson doesn't take hold because one of the frightened boys, Doroteo, gets involved in a fearsome kidnapping eight years later. A rich businessman is abducted by professionals, beaten and mutilated while his wife and brother dither over the ransom money. The victim's agony is shown with hair-raising realism, as is his tense relationship to Doroteo.

By constantly cross-cutting between the years, Gout is able to keep the action rolling non-stop. It's never clear how much Lupo is involved in the kidnapping story; he spends his screen time taking revenge on other criminals. According to family legend, his grandmother was saved by Zapata himself from being raped, and the Mexican revolutionary inspires Lupo's ham-fisted but ingenuous crime-fighting. Viewers will smell a rat a mile off when the smarmy police captain invites him to join his elite hit squad and take out a drug ring lead by a ruthless woman known as the Madrina. The good Lupo plunges ahead, with terrible consequences.

The overwritten script has so many subplots it's hard to keep the stories straight, especially when the ending throws a truly unexpected twist. But little matter; the exceptional tech work gives the film plenty of energy and excitement. Rapid-fire editing and moving handheld camerawork combine with blasts of period music create a simulation of non-stop violence for the audience. This may not be the best calling card for Mexican tourism, but it is likely to take Gout a long way.

(Editing by Zorianna Kit)