Judge Erich Asperschlager is bilingual-curious.
The rule among criminals is don't steal from your own kind. But extreme situations call for extreme measures.
Channeling the lighthearted style of films like Ocean's Eleven, The Sting, and Catch Me If You Can, director Joe Menendez and writer/actor JoJo Henrickson's Ladrón Que Roba A Ladrón (English title, "To Rob A Thief") is a satisfying heist film with a good sense of humor. Set against the background of Latino immigrants working low-wage jobs in and around L.A., it uses their plight as a plot device rather than as a political statement. Though the filmmakers' goal was to satisfy a Latino audience, the end result is an American-made Spanish language movie with universal appeal.
The film isn't perfect: It's sometimes silly (especially if you think too hard about the motivation behind the plot), and the plan relies a little too heavily on luck and uncanny foresight for its success. Still, the tone and direction are breezy enough for audiences to accept the film's flaws and get carried away by the fun of a good ol' fashioned heist.
Facts of the Case
Professional thieves Emilio (Miguel Varoni, My Name is Earl) and Alejandro (Fernando Colunga, Amor Real) are planning to rob the worst thief they know—infomercial mogul Moctesuma Valdez (Saúl Lisazo, Tierra de Pasiones), who has conned countless poor Latinos into buying his so-called "miracle" products. Unfortunately, the associates Emilio had counted on helping are unavailable, so Alejandro has gathered a team of novices to take their place. Since the plan relies on its members playing the parts of low-wage immigrants, Alejandro's group is composed of actual immigrants, each with a special skill. With only two weeks to train the green recruits to carry out a complicated plan, can Emilio pull off the most important heist of his career?
Ladrón Que Roba A Ladrón is a fun and flashy movie that takes a lot of its cues from big budget Hollywood flicks. That said, the joy of the film is its reimagining of those movies for a Latin American audience. Latinos often get short shrift when it comes to movies. It's about time someone made an American film for Americans who speak something other than English.
The filmmakers have fun twisting Latino stereotypes to their advantage by having the big plan revolve around the invisibility inherent in the kinds of low-wage work immigrants usually get. Emilio recognizes the fact that gardeners, valets, and maids often have access to secure locations that more valued employees do not. In one scene, for example, two characters posing as janitors are able to break in and escape from a millionaire's office because the security guard who catches them assumes they're just too stupid to understand they shouldn't be there. It's such a simple and refreshing idea, I can't believe no one's thought of it before. Why go for the high-tech face matching of Mission: Impossible when you can just grab a broom and get to work?
The cast is composed primarily of famous Latino (mostly telenovela) actors, who thankfully stay far away from the "passionate" overacting usually associated with Spanish television. As the brothers behind the heist, Varoni and Colunga anchor the plot with handsome confidence. Varoni's Emilio plays the straight man whose desire for revenge gives the often comedic plot necessary weight. His younger brother Alejandro, meanwhile, bridges the world of professional theft and the ragtag team he's assembled: There's the wheelman and mechanic father-daughter team of Rafa (Ruben Garfias, License to Wed) and Rafaela (Ivonne Montero, Decisiones); Miguelito (Oscar Torres, Cane), the Cuban refugee method actor who's tasked with starting a strike; Anibal (Gabriel Soto, La Verdad Oculta), the beefy hole-digger; and Julio (writer JoJo Henrickson, Stump the Band), the requisite tech genius. On the other side, Saúl Lisazo is the perfect villain, matching Emilio step-for-step in the film's chess match finale. Though most of the actors were new to me, it was nice to see Julie Gonzalo (who fans of Veronica Mars will recognize as Parker from the series' final season) as Gloria, the nanny Alejandro uses to gain access to the Valdez estate.
Visually, the movie is a nice mix of Hollywood polish and indie film aesthetic. Handheld camerawork gives the story energy, as does quick-paced editing and some clever transition shots. The transfer is nice, with a natural color range, and the 5.1 surround audio more than handles Andrés Levin's swinging score, with its punchy Latin beats and retro feel.
The DVD extras are fairly impressive, reflecting the filmmakers' desire for Ladrón to keep pace with big studio releases. The menus, inspired by the film's '60s-style closing title animation, are in Spanish with English translations. Most of the features, as well, are either fully in Spanish, or have the occasional English thrown in. Either way, unless you're bilingual, you'll want to turn the English subtitles on. It may seem strange for an American-released DVD to extensively use a language other than English in the bonus features, but it comes back to the filmmakers' goal of creating a movie that's Latinos first, Gringos second.
The one feature that is, thankfully, entirely in English is the commentary track recorded by Menendez and Henrickson. Though a fairly standard "nuts and bolts" commentary, they tell interesting stories and have a lengthy discussion about their goals for the film.
The other special features are a "Making Of" in which the filmmakers (once again) talk about making a movie for Latin Americans; a mostly wordless piece highlighting Andrés Levin's music; and 20 minutes of deleted scenes, which can be viewed with or without commentary. The best of these scenes are from an excised subplot about one of Emilio's former partners, who's unhappy with being left out of the job and blackmails his way into the heist, setting in motion an elaborate plan-within-a-plan to get him out of the way.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Most of Ladrón's attempts at humor are genuinely funny, but sometimes the material is too silly—either because that silliness doesn't work with the heartfelt emotion behind Emilio's plan, or the heartfelt emotion clashes with the comedy. The biggest problem with the film's emotional center is that we're supposed to feel sorry for all the people who have been conned by Valdez and his infomercial empire. If he had worked a legitimate con on them, maybe it would have worked. Instead, these people willingly wasted their money on potions and creams promising to cure cancer, shed unsightly pounds, and enlarge a certain male organ. Sure, it's awful to see someone prey on the desperation of the poor, but shouldn't the victims have known better?
Though relying on lucky breaks to cover for less-than-airtight plans is a common problem in the heist genre, it doesn't excuse the flaws in Emilio and Alejandro's plot. Even if you chalk up the credibility-straining moments to the caper's short lead time or its conspirators' inexperience, they still stand out in what is an otherwise tightly constructed script. Oh, well. At least it's more believable than Prison Break.
Though there are aspects of Ladrón that don't work for me, I'm willing to accept that they may be due more to cultural differences than a weak script. I am not among the film's intended Latino audience, and that's OK. Credit should go to Henrickson and Menendez for making a film aimed at a group of Americans often marginalized by Hollywood, that's universal enough for everyone to enjoy. Getting results as impressive as this with a relatively small budget—especially for a movie that gets compared to films with access to deep studio pockets—is an achievement in any language.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary With Director Joe Menendez And Writer/Actor JoJo Henrickson
Review content copyright © 2008 Erich Asperschlager; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.