Film Review: Manos Sucias

Terrific drama about a drug run up the Colombian coastline by two young novices desperate for money is a technical and performing tour de force. A little weak in storytelling, but not enough to ruin a highly watchable journey.
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The Colombian film Manos Sucias (Dirty Hands) is blessed with heaps of talent behind and in front of the camera. Its clean narrative thread rings with a familiar hook, but the filmmakers deliver a visually gorgeous and original take on drug trafficking. Atmosphere counts plenty and the two leads (sort of trafficking interns)—Cristian Advincula and Jarlin Martinez—look like they were born to be nowhere else but in the small, funky vessel they navigate. Art-house fans of all ages will have a rewarding time.

Drug operators in a small and dangerous Colombian port town hire two locals—estranged brothers—desperate for money. They are early twenty-something Delio (Cristian Advincula), a rap singer with a baby son, devoted girlfriend and dreams of glory, and Jacobo (Jarlin Martinez), a slightly older and more hardened soul. Their job is to deliver a container of cocaine locked in a torpedo and dragged by a small, shabby boat that they’ll navigate up the coast to awaiting traffickers.

Their guide is Miguel (Hadder Blandon), but he succumbs early and the two newbies are on their own. Delio and Jarlin can monitor the coke by remote control as it’s dragged in the water.

The two men are from the same town but hadn’t been in touch. Their trip, of course, brings some sharing. And expected man-talk and contrasts. Delio bursts with optimism; Jacobo is a man in despair, especially as he lost his young son to paramilitary gunfire. They both love soccer.

They near their destination, only to realize their cargo is gone. The monitor brings them to shore, where they travel through thick foliage along rail tracks to follow the signal. On the rails they encounter curious contraptions on the tracks—platforms powered by motorcycle engines. They hop some rides and eventually encounter Jorge (Manuel David Riascos), who, also poor, took the torpedo and has been caring for his sickly grandmother (Cirila Sinisterra). Some gripping stuff follows, but the film’s real punch is in a chilling final scene conveying truisms of human nature and survival.

Filmmaker Josef Kubota Wladyka gets wonderful performances not just from the two leads, who amaze, but from all supporting players. Alan Blanco’s cinematography, courtesy of Canon cameras and lenses that he has mastered, delivers some unforgettable tableaux and emotionally wrought moments. The music track—whether original or borrowed—is just right as a complement to both the local color and underlying energies and tensions.

There are some slips—there’s talk of the Pacific, but the waters they navigate are more lake-like. Also, it’s hard to believe the two men are brothers and why was it even necessary to establish them as such? More importantly, that drug cargo and its disappearance at the narrative’s center should have had a more prominent role as they have in similarly themed films. Some that come to mind include Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 French thriller classic The Wages of Fear, in which a couple of desperate outsiders are charged to transport a nitroglycerine shipment, or even The Treasure of Sierra Madre, where greed and gold are the drivers.

But Wladyka here has crafted a winner and, as Manos Sucias marks his debut, he’ll have plenty more to come and time to grow.

Click here for cast and crew information.