Directed by Josef Wladyka
It’s not hard to see why the great Spike Lee would want to get his hands on the drug-trafficking dramatic thriller Manos Sucias. It’s exceptionally made and extraordinarily tense. It also profiles a culture that’s both rarely depicted in art and quite underserved in real life. Lee isn’t this film’s director, though. That title, improbably, belongs to rookie filmmaker Josef Wladyka, whose voice is shockingly established for someone as green as he is.
The film introduces us to the drug trade that starts out of the ironically named Colombian port city of Buenaventura (translation: “good luck”). Two young men, Jacobo (Jarlin Javier Martinez) and Delio (Cristian James Abvincula), embark on a deal that will take them into the sometimes treacherous waters off the coast. The former has done this many times, but he wants out. The latter, on the other hand, is a rookie at delivering drugs, but it’s something he’s wanted and waited to do for a long time.
Jacobo and Delio are also brothers, though they haven’t seen each other or spoken in a number of years. In the time since they last met, Delio became a father. This job, then, takes on more of a meaning to him as he seeks to find a way to provide a better life for his son. Jacobo, on the other hand, saw his son killed by paramilitaries and his marriage end as a result of that tragedy. He has nothing and is ready to start anew, so this is his last job before he moves out of Buenaventura and into Bogota.
The film is chameleonic insofar as it takes on a number of different forms—drug-running thriller, relational drama, and cultural profile. What’s impressive—especially considering that a first-time director is at the helm—is how it doesn’t give any form the short end of the stick. After a particularly tense chase scene, we’re given a quiet dialogue sequence about our characters, their appallingly hopeless home lives, or their love of music, both traditional Colombian songs and pretty hardcore rap. Delio considers himself a rap artist and seeks to live the life his favorite performers glorify—a fact that lends greater depth to his powerful character arc.
The thriller elements are expertly executed, too. Wladyka smartly establishes quite early that blood can and will be spilled if the job calls for it. As a result, there’s a feeling that no one is safe and anything can happen.
Killing, it seems, is something of a right of passage, and it represents a major chasm between our two brothers. Jacobo is the ultimate protector. He values life, but he’ll take it if it’s in the name of saving others. Delio, on the other hand, sees stars in his eyes when he finally gets to hold a gun, but he might not be as tough as he lets on. Both actors are unknowns, but they get the pitch of these two characters just right.
Of course, the film focuses on a different and unique culture, but its well-drawn tension is ultimately very accessible. One can’t help but wonder if Manos Sucias is ultimately poised for an American remake, like so many other foreign action films. It doesn’t need one, mind you; the film we have is plenty excellent on its own. But Hollywood would be smart to snatch up such talent as Wladyka.
— John Gilpatrick