No matter how much writer-director Richard Montoya tries to open up the screen adaptation of his stage play "Water & Power," which premiered at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum in 2006, it's hard to forget that you're watching a piece with theatrical roots.
That's because it seems as if Montoya hasn't recalibrated his work's florid, crafty dialogue or its arch rhythms of speech and performance to fit the inherent pacing and more up-close-and-personal nature of film. (To wit, the actors, strong as they are, too often feel like they're "acting.")
The result is an uncomfortable hybrid that raises the question: Should Montoya have simply shot and cut together several great performances of his provocative play and given movie audiences the most authentic version of his commanding, stylized vision?
Either way, there's a vital story at work here. It involves a pair of East L.A.-bred twin brothers — ambitious state senator Gil (Enrique Murciano) and conflicted cop Gabe (Nicholas Gonzales) — who were nicknamed "Water" and "Power" by their late, DWP-employed father. Together, these loyal carnales (brothers) face a dark night of the soul as factions from L.A.'s gang culture, law enforcement ranks and political worlds converge in a kind of imperfect storm. Past, present and future are all brought to bear as a lyrical, neo-noirish snapshot of the City of Angels' Eastside-Westside divide plays out around them.
As presented by Montoya, there's a near-mythic quality to this cautionary tale, and particularly to the characters of Water and Power. In fact, from the poetic, grandiose narration spoken by Norte/Sur (Emilio Rivera), a wheelchair-bound homeboy with a special tie to Gabe, you'd think these symbiotic twins were a kind of Chicano Romulus and Remus. To say the least, things tend to be a bit overstated here.
Then there's the kingly, gray-tressed "fixer" Gil visits to bargain for Gabe's life. As played in outsized fashion by veteran actor Clancy Brown, he's a superbly conceived creation — for the stage. On camera, this ruthless powerbroker comes off as more caricature than character, his foot-wash request more over-the-top icky than cleverly symbolic.
An accomplished group of actors — including Robert Beltran, Roger Guenveur Smith, Wanda De Jesus and the late, great Lupe Ontiveros — populate several police station scenes that attempt heft but also don't escape Montoya's theatrical hand.
Still, "Water & Power" remains a quintessential L.A. story that is worth seeing for what it has to say, if not necessarily for how it says it.
'Water & Power'
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: In limited releaseCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times