Secuestro Express: Directed by Venezuelan Jonathan Jakubowicz

In spite of honorable intention to explore issues of Venezuela’s poverty and sharp inequality that prevails between the haves and haves not, Secuestro Express is so poorly written and directed by newcomer Jonathan Jakubowicz that it comes across as a borderline exploitation flick.
In the guise of a social problem picture, “Secuestro Express” is cautionary tale with no morality, no center, and no point of view, a film in which the hoodlums torture not only the protagonists but the audience too.

Indeed, instead of illuminating the escalating issues of Venezuela, and by extension other Third World countries, the picture is helmed in a shallow, MTV-like style that moves along in breath-neck pacing. In lieu of an honest treatment of poverty, unemployment and illiteracy, and how crime is used to alleviate these problems, we get a superficial portrait of a decadent social order, in which every element, particularly the police force, is corrupt, greedy, and duplicitous. As a result, there’s a peculiar sense of relief, rather than alert or anxiety, when the movie is over.

The film’s timely story might have been torn from the newspapers. In recent years, the success of what’s known as the secuestro express has made it a profitable business in Latin America. Reportedly, there have been many quick kidnappings, perpetrated by small groups of organized thugs, who randomly choose their victims from members of the upper class. The abduction usually lasts several hours, or as long as it takes for the kidnappers to extort money from the victims’ family. The amount of the ransom is “reasonable,” money the family is likely to have and likely to pay without involving the authorities.

At the center of this frightening, relevant story is the nightmarish experience of one young couple, as they careen through the underbelly of Caracas, in the hands of three hoodlums whove made them their latest payday. When first seen, Carla (Mia Maestro) and Martin (Jean Paul Leroux) are an attractive upper-class couple, fresh off of a night of dancing and partying. While sitting in their car, making out under the influence of drugs, they are suddenly abducted by a trio of terrorists, Trece (Carlos Molina), Budu (Pedro Perez) and Niga (Carlos Madera), who make their living by kidnapping unwitting young adults to extort quick money from their wealthy parents.

As the group’s next victims, Carla and Martin are sent on a terrifying overnight journey through Caracas as they wait for Carla’s father Sergio (Ruben Blades) to hand over $25,000 dollars, a small amount for a rich Caraqueo, but the equivalent of almost five years of Venezuelan minimum wage.

Soon, arguments and tensions abound not only between the terrorists, but also between the couple themselves. In a crucial scene, the trio and their victims visit a gay man for a drug transaction. A decent man, he actually saves Martin’s life. However, moments later, Martin rapes a tied to prove he’s not gay. This (unintentionally) homophobic scene is watched by Mia, when she and her tormentors return to the house. It’s never clear if Martin, who’s been dating Mia for years and is about to marry her, is a latent homosexual, a bisexual, or just homophobe. Coalitions change quickly, and back in the car, Mia joins her kidnappers in ridiculing and torturing her boyfriend.

Ruben Blades, a social fighter and candidate for President in his home country Panama, has never been in a Spanish language movie before. “I thought this was the right script for me, because it was born in the mean streets of Latin America,” Blades says. “It speaks from the heart and soul of the streets like where I was born, where violence is your daily bread, and the people in power are deaf.” One of the most respected actors in Latin America, Blades is the only cast member to conveys humanity in his role as Mia’s beleaguered father.

Unfortunately, for the sake of authenticity, the director interrupts the most suspenseful moments with radio announcement that convey the rime, “it’s now 5:30 in the morning,” and so on. The movie consists of numerous brief scenes, parallel montages to convey simultaneous actions, and dizzying editing.

The street knowledge of the three men who play the kidnappers is vivid, due to the improvisatory nature of the dialogue. Jakubowicz goes for cinema-verite style, with his handheld camera, favoring amateur over professional players, based on his preference for “real ghetto kids who have lived all their lives struggling with misery, violence, injustice and hunger” over professional actors. Nonetheless, the dialogue is sleazy and atrocious. When one hoodlum says to his mate, “let’s rape her and give her HIV,” and is corrected by his mate, “you mean H20,” “Secuestro Express” sinks to a point of no return, where its honorable humanist goal is quickly forgotten.

“Secuestro Express” does have a localized flavor. Shooting with a DVCAM is based on an aesthetic choice due to the unlimited possibilities of multi-camera setups and long takes, as more effective ways to recreate the reality of these dramatic and disturbing situations with a documentary-like eye. The use of digital video cameras is particularly suitable since most of the action takes place on the road, with chase scenes, roadblocks by the police, and the chaos that seems to be Caracas’ everyday reality.

Jakuboowicz reports that “at the time of filming, Venezuela was on the verge of a social explosion. It was the most important political crisis in the country’s history, and the film was shooting on dangerous streets at the center of both sides of the civil war Caracas had been fostering for years. In fact, when pre-production began it was impossible to find gas in Caracas due to a two month long oil industry strike.”

In the outdoor scenes, we witness the existence of rival gangs, officials of two different police, bodyguards and members of the government’s intelligence police. There’s tension in the air since you never know whose side the official represent. As the helmer recalls: “Each side thought the filming might just be a setup to take over the streets where we were shooting. Getting permission to shoot on location was tough, since nobody believed that in the middle of that political and social tension, someone was making a movie with international stars.”

Born in Caracas, 26-year-old Jakubowicz had dealt sensitively with the issue of Sept. 11 in his short “Distance,” a poignant story about a woman’s mysterious past as it unfolds during an unexpected trip to Holland in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. “Distance” screened at the World Festival of Montreal, New York Independent Festival and Palm Springs Shorts Festival. Previously, Jakubowicz had written and directed, “Ship of Hope,” a docu recounting the journey of Jewish refugees on a ship fleeing the Nazi Regime to Venezuela. Screened at the DGA’s Angelus Awards and the Havana Festival, the short won Best Documentary at the Premios a la Calidad de CENAC (Venezulelan Oscars) and was purchased by HBO OLE and History Channel Latin America, where it played in programming rotation for two years.

The movie’s executive producer is Eizabeth Avelln, a native of Caracas, which might explain why “Secuestro Express” is distributed by Miramax, a company for which her husband, Robert Rodriguez, is one of the house filmmakers, and she a producer, having collaborated on “El Mariachi,” “Desperado,” “From Dusk Till Dawn,” “The Faculty,” and the “Spy Kids” films.

“Secuestro Express” is relentlessly grim and intense, as it should be, but it achieves these attributes in a cheap and manipulative ways.