Blood, guts and turf.
Part slice of life, part coming of age tale inspired by Boyz N the Hood, Road Dogz puts a Latino twist on the familiar story in newcomer writer/director Alfredo Ramos' film. As independent films go, Road Dogz gets a fine technical presentation and a simple set of extra content.
Facts of the Case
Life-long friends Danny (Jacob Vargas), Alfonso (Greg Serano), and Raymo (Clifton Collins Jr.) have grown up on the dangerous streets of East L.A. Though their lives have revolved around friendship, basketball, and normal adolescent pranks, they are mindful of the hard realities of their neighborhood. When local gangster Big Joe (Emilio Rivera) returns to the 'hood upon his release from prison, the friends welcome him back. However, Big Joe's return sparks resentment from the vicious Gramps (Lobo Sebastian), who is determined not to yield his lucrative narcotics trafficking territory to the former kingpin.
As Danny struggles to find a job and a girlfriend set on leaving for college in New York, and Alfonso has his sights set on pleasing his new girl, Chespi (Yelba Osorio), Raymo decides that the only way to help his overworked and underpaid mother to is to become Gramps' best salesman. When a sudden turn of events leaves Raymo without the fat bankroll from his drug sales, all three friends know that Gramps will not be happy, and that Raymo is in serious peril. Raymo is not the only one facing a life-altering decision, as Danny must decide if he has the courage to leave his neighborhood to follow his love and Alfonso must decide if he will become a man sooner than he had anticipated.
In Hollywood, sometimes it seems as if an original idea is nowhere to be found. Tried and true formulas get reworked and reshaped into film after film, sequels and remakes are easy to pitch to bean counting suits, and then you run across the frequent Hollywood phenomena of similar sounding films in parallel production in a cinematic game of chicken. Take your pick, and unless it's something truly remarkable, someone, somewhere has a doppelganger competitor in production. Of course, unoriginality is hardly a barrier to achieve artistic success, much less commercial success (Scooby-Doo, anyone?), but it does make the road to those goals that much tougher.
With that in mind, writer/director Alfredo Ramos openly admits that Road Dogz is derivative of "'hood films" like Boyz N the Hood, a film that helped nurture his desire to become a filmmaker. I give him credit for admitting his motivation and inspiration, for I was thinking along those lines as I watched the broadly familiar story unfold. While the impetus of Road Dogz is not fresh, the vibrant cultural landscape of East L.A. comes to life before your eyes thanks to a remarkably effective collaboration. Starting with Alfredo Ramos' own life experience in East Los Angeles (where he still lives) and adding the contributions of many of his friends in the community, who became actors, crew members, or simply responded by allowing him access to homes, murals, and picturesque businesses, the result is a loving but very honest portrait. Furthermore, the unfolding story takes a refreshingly moral tack, attacking the comfortable assumption of superiority that correlates morality and class. Criminal behavior is shown to be a negative and destructive endeavor, hard work and courage can lead to a greater reward, and personal responsibility is a noble, social good.
The central troika of actors, Clifton Collins Jr. (One Eight Seven, Tigerland, Traffic), Greg Serano (Legally Blonde), and Jacob Vargas (Mi Vida Loca, Romy And Michele's High School Reunion), use their off-camera friendship to generate an on-camera chemistry, playing off each other to impressive effect. However, their performances are eclipsed by the larcenous talents of Emilio Rivera (The Bold and the Beautiful, Con Air) and Lobo Sebastian (One Eight Seven, Ghosts of Mars). In their interpretation, Big Joe and Gramps have a mythic quality, mysterious and intriguing, even as they diverge into unexpectedly sympathetic and quite terrifying figures, respectively.
The anamorphic video compliments the story with a rich, colorful panorama. The defects as well as the edge enhancement are minimal. The only visual flaw is the softness of the picture that at a couple of points seems downright blurry. Given the non-Pearl Harbor budget for Road Dogz and a number of remarks in the commentary track, I suspect that this might be at least partly the fault of the inexpensive film stock. Since this is the only point where Road Dogz betrays its modest origins, I'd say that's a compliment to director Alfredo Ramos and producer Marlon Parry.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is a decent effort. Though the rear surrounds are only used for filling in ambient sound and music, the front speakers pump out a strong, active sound from all channels, with appropriate sound effect placement and panning and heavy bass support from the subwoofer. Not quite top class, but close.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
On the extra side, the main items are a "behind the scenes" featurette and a commentary track. The featurette is just over eight minutes of film clips, interviews with the principal trio of actors, and a few shots of the film's production. At least it is short, inoffensive public relations fluff! The commentary track, with writer/director Alfredo Ramos and actor Jacob Vargas, is fairly standard. I don't mean to pick on this track too much, as this is a facet common to many, many commentaries, but sometimes it gets tiresome to listen to commentaries where every actor and actress is described in superlative terms. I realize that particularly for a young director or actor it would not be professionally wise to needlessly criticize others, but surely there cannot be so many films where all is sweetness and light and everyone is flawless. Even Paul Verhoeven's overblown, tiresome rantings in a thick Dutch accent might be preferable, or at least less conventional.
Completing the content are production notes and the full-frame (ick!) theatrical trailer for Road Dogz.
It won't blow your socks off, rattle paint off your wall, or grab your heart and make you cry, but still Road Dogz ($25 list) is worth a look. When next you roam the aisles of your video store and you are looking for an alternative to the big, dumb Hollywood flick du jour, try Road Dogz for a simple story, genuine acting, and the gritty, colorful vistas of East Los Angeles.
Have a cerveza or two and kick back with Road Dogz.
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Scales of Justice
• Director and Actor Commentary
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