June/July 1998

Men With Guns

review by Mark Leeper

In an unspecified Latin American country a naive doctor
searches for the students he sent into the mountains to
help Indios only to find a string of atrocities by the
army and the guerrillas. The film is slow and totally
obvious from the first reel. Flat and uninteresting
characters do little to help. This is a heartfelt story,
but tells us nothing we have not known for decades.
Rating: 4 (0 to 10), 0 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: 12 positive, 2 negative, 4 mixed


One of the most respected names in American independent filmmaking is John Sayles. He has built a strong reputation with films like Matewan and The Secret of Roan Inish, and one of his best was his last film, Lone Star. After Sayles gave us this complex and unconventional look at ethnic tensions on the US-Mexico border, expectation ran high for his next film. Unfortunately, his Men With Guns is not the film anyone was hoping for. We are essentially told in the first reel where the film is going to go and what it is going to do. Then the film does exactly what it promised, a painful as that is. The plot of Men With Guns can be summarized "In a Central or South American country things are really bad for everybody in the mountains where the army clashes with the guerrillas. Dr. Fuentes did not believe how bad things were so he went. And he found out again and again and again." Of course it is perfectly true that in many places in that region armed conflicts have turned life into a living hell. A guerrilla war is always bad for civilians. But the film talks down to the viewer.

Dr. Fuentes (played by Federico Luppi) teaches medicine in the capital city of his country. He has, as a great humanitarian gesture, trained and inspired some of his best students to go into the mountains and make the world a little better for the poor Indios. Fuentes believe the students to be up there doing humanitarian service. Then he discovers one of his best students has instead returned to the city and runs a squalid private pharmacy. In shame and disappointment Fuentes asks the student what has happened to the others. The student tells him the others are still in the mountains, but suggests that it may not be a good place to be. Fuentes goes off to find and visit the doctors, ignoring the advice of his family and a patient who happens to be an army general. The results are little different than one would expect.

Dr. Fuentes starts out incredibly naive. Even some American tourists, present in the film mostly for comic relief, seem to know better than Dr. Fuentes that things have gotten pretty bad in the mountains. But Fuentes has to go from one scene of barbarity to another and discover how wrong he was. Sayles certainly could have used 126 minute of screen time to tell us something more profound than that nasty things are happening down there and most of the worst happens to the unarmed civilians.

The cast is mostly unknowns to American audiences. Federico Luppi is the good Mexican actor who played the antique dealer torn by mysterious forces in Cronos. Damian Delgado makes a late appearance as an army deserter. Mandy Patinkin has a small role made to look bigger in the trailer.

Men With Guns is a film on a serious subject, but it has little new or valuable to say on that subject. I rate it 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale.

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