REDEEMER Review: Mixed Blessings
As I was growing up, the films I consumed – even the films with the most gravitas – were mostly mainstream fare. It wasn’t until my early 20s (when I worked at a video store) that I started paying closer attention to arthouse and independent films. (It was such a different landscape then. Exposure to indies was almost non-existent in suburbia.) The first film I remember jumping out at me was Robert Rodriguez‘s El Mariachi (1992), a terrific film that got a lot of attention for the combination of its high quality and its ridiculously low budget ($7,000 as the story goes). It has been an indie favorite of mine ever since.
Redeemer, from director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza, reminds me a lot of the Rodriguez indie, as well as its slightly more Hollywood sequel, Desperado (budget: $7,000,000).
Pardo (Marko Zaror) is a man haunted by his past. Because of the sins he committed in a life he left long ago, he has taken it upon himself to act as an extension of the Lord, meting out vicious justice to those who have committed crimes and will not ask for forgiveness. He is known in the Chilean underworld as “The Redeemer.”
As Pardo dishes out his own style of holy justice, what he doesn’t realize is that he is on a collision course with “The Scorpion” (Jose Luis Mosca), an assassin who played a critical role in Pardo’s past. Along the way, The Redeemer must also battle the henchmen of American drug kingpin wannabe Bradock (Noah Segan), as well as protect a pair of good people he’s met a long the way.
Several things – a lot of small details, really – about Redeemer kept me thinking back to those first two Rodriguez films. But the critical comparison is the construct of The Redeemer himself. Just as Rodriguez’s El Mariachi character is as much myth as he is man, so too is Espinoza’s The Redeemer. Both are haunted by tragic pasts and motivated to exact vengeance on criminals as a result. Both have sworn mortal enemies who were key figures in defining their vigilantism. And both have a gimmick of sorts (El Mariachi has his guitar case full of weapons, while The Redeemer has a “portable altar” and uses a considerable amount of religious symbolism and vernacular). The finer points of the characters’ backstories are different, of course, and this is where Espinoza outshines Rodriguez – not only because the Redeemer backstory is far more Shakespearean, but also because the Mariachi backstory is the entire first Rodriguez film; Espinoza has to weave his character’s tale and tell a current story in just one film.
Every blessing has its curse, though. For as much as the characters are comparable, the lead actors make all the difference in the world. As The Redeemer, Zaror has none of the charm of Carlos Gallardo and none of the charisma of Antonio Banderas (the two actors who portrayed the Mariachi). Zaror’s facial expressions and line-delivery (in the current-day story, not the flashbacks) are intended to be brooding (at worst) or menacing (at best), but instead he looks and sounds bored. It’s enough to drag the entire “current” story down to some pretty dull depths.
That said, once you see Zaror fight, you quickly learn why he was cast; what the man lacks in thespian skills, he more than compensates for in martial arts prowess. This is another great touch to this film: The Redeemer uses guns routinely, but he is more than happy to fight hand-to-hand. Zaror choreographed the fight scenes for the film, and they all have an incredible sense of realism. They aren’t action-film flashy in this post-Raid world, and there are a couple times they drag on a little too long, but in the end, the battles are genuine, and that’s what you want in a film.
The fight scenes are blocked well, too, and Espinoza uses slo-mo to great effect throughout the film. Not only does this add to each fight’s intensity, it spotlights the naturalness of the moves – there’s no wire-fu or CGI at work here.
Humor is another key to the film’s success. Everyone is so serious and every scene is so serious … except for Bradock and his scenes. Segan plays the wannabe drug lord as a completely obnoxious American who is oblivious to his own complete obnoxiousness. Better still, the character never overstays his welcome; his scenes are perfectly scattered and perfectly measured so he never becomes tiresome.
What does become tiresome, though, is The Redeemer’s religious slant. I understand that’s the hook, but moderation and creative subtlety are abandoned for endless;y overt repetition. The gimmick is overused to the point that it is already too much by the end of the first act.
While the film might struggle with the main narrative, and while the artistic approach is spotty at times, Espinoza shows more than enough talent to make Redeemer worth seeking out. In fact, where Rodriguez told his character’s origin tale and then moved on to a sequel, I would line up immediately for an Espinoza-crafted prequel to this picture.