Sunday, April 10, 2011


MPAA (unrated) Fr. Dennis (2 ½ stars)
IMDb Listing -

Elite (directed by Andres Ramirez, screenplay by Jean-Paul Polo, Josean Rivera Vaquer and José A. Rivera Vaquer) is a low budget ($200,000) Spanish language-English subtitled Puerto Rican crime / action film that is an entry at the 2011 Chicago Latino Film Festival. It is also the very first movie I’ve ever seen at a film festival and I have to say that I’ve enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed it not just for the movie, which was okay (not great but okay, but look at the budget ;-), but also for the context provided by the director Ramirez after the screening of the film.

Ramirez explained that Elite is novel because most films made with government subsidy or support in Latin America end up being "art films" and he and the others in this movie felt that there was a need to expand the horizons of what’s possible in the Puerto Rican film community. Action films are very popular, why not try to make an action film? Indeed, he noted that Elite was released two weeks after the release of the Expendibles (with Bruce Willis) in Puerto Rico and that Elite didn’t do altogether that badly and that since the making of Elite in 2010, at least 5 other projects of different genres have been given support to proceed. And I honestly think that is great!

And since Elite was such a low budget affair, the makers of the movie were able to have some fun with it. Notably, Ramirez explained that one of the actors Rodolfo Rodríguez (who played Féliz Flores, a key villain in story) asked if he could play his character "gay," saying that he always wanted to play a "gay mobster." And so Ramirez and the writers let him do it! These things are possible if you’re putting together a low budget affair ;-)

Still the movie, light as it often is, touches on some rather tough issues, notably the drug trade and the corruption that it carries with it, everywhere really, but also then in Puerto Rico.

The story begins 20 years in the past with a fictionalized Puerto Rican drug kingpin José Saldaña (played by John Garcia) telling a messenger from Pablo Escobar that whoever else Escobar may be elsewhere that "Aqui [en Puerto Rico] manda Saldaña. (I run things here)." Very good. The messenger leaves to carry the message back to Escobar, but as Saldaña leaves the meeting as well, he is stopped by a police road block and discovers that his right hand man of the last 5 years, Diego Torres (played by José Yenque) was an undercover cop. Angry at being so betrayed, he shoots Torres before being arrested.

In the next scene, the prosecutor Carlos Garcia (played by Ernesto Concepción, Jr) is making his closing argument against Saldaña, noting with sarcasm how Saldaña has tried to portray himself as an upstanding citizen (even though he was arrested after flagrantly assassinating a police officer, Torres, in cold blood). "Look at his fine dress, and his fine family sitting so nicely behind him, his wife, his two little children. Solo falta el perrito (All that's missing is the little dog ;-)." Saldaña is convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

More forward to 20 years later. For some reason after rotting away in jail for those 20 years, Saldaña is suddenly ordered transferred from one prison to another. On the way between the two prisons, the van carrying him along with the police escort are stopped, the police are killed and Saldaña is freed.

"How could that have be?" asks now Governor Carlos Garcia immediately suspecting some sort of an inside job and obviously worried for his safety and that of his family. His advisor Superintendente Angel Gil (played by José Brocco) suggests that the Governor organize an elite squad of incorruptible police officers to recapture Saldaña or if that proves impossible to "take care of him" in the way that Pablo Escobar was finally "taken care of." The Governor agrees and the Superintendent as well as his assistant Amanda (played by Monica Steuer) put together the squad that includes among others Sandra Torres (played by Denise Quiñones) the now grown daughter of the undercover police officer who Saldaña had killed in cold blood.

After a silly send-up of the requisite "training sequence" that these kind of films always seem to have, the squad sets about its work to find Saldaña. Included in this group of elite crime fighters is also a requisite "geek" pulled up from the police’s computer department and who had previously gotten a degree at MIT before returning back to San Juan.

In the meantime, Saldaña finds that he has his own problems. While certainly grateful that he was freed, he doesn’t exactly understand why, especially since his now grown sons Junior and Jaime (played by Leonardo Castro and José/Josean Rivera Vaquer) tell him that his rescue was actually put together by a strangely gay mobster acquaintance Félix Flores (played by Rodolfo Rodríquez). The elder Saldaña simply can’t get around Félix’s sexual orientation. "Much has certainly changed in the 20 years that I’ve in prison. How could it be that a gay man could now be (effectively) running our operation?" And he asks his two sons where they found Félix to begin with. They answer that he came to them "from the Bronx."

Okay, much happens, often in quite amusing ways (again, part of the intent of the movie was to be a "send up" of far more serious and far higher budget action films). And justice is done.

However, when the dust clears a question remains: Was the Elite squad assembled to apprehend or otherwise bring back to justice a dangerous fugitive or was it actually put together to simply help one crime family move in on the turf (and eliminate) another? Welcome to the ambiguities of the Drug War.

I liked this film and found it to be quite creative on a shoe-string budget. And I wish Andres Ramirez and the others involved in this film all well in the future! Who knows what else they’ll come up with in years to come ;-)

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