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MOVIE REVIEW : Romance Molests Reality in ‘Show of Force’

“A Show of Force” (citywide) is a political thriller that spins giddily between fact and fancy, shocks and romance, politics and sex--and sometimes it’s difficult to guess whether the sex is there to sell the politics or vice versa. Either way, they don’t jell. The politics get glossed up and trivialized by the sex. The sex has too frantic and nervous an edge.

The movie, adapted from “Murder Under Two Flags” by occasional Times contributor Anne Nelson, is based on the Cerro Maravilla incident, a Puerto Rican political scandal stemming from the police slaying of two young dissidents during a bungled communications station takeover. At the time, in 1978, the Puerto Rican government made capital out of the alleged sabotage. Later, it was discovered that the victims-- independistas who believed in secession from the United States--had been lured to the shoot-out by a police informant and executed after they had already surrendered. The resulting cover-up and scandal brought down the commonwealth’s administration.

This is potent stuff. But, in the movie, reality is molested by romance. I haven’t read Nelson’s book, but I have my doubts that--as we’re shown here--the main reporter covering the scandal (Amy Irving) was engaged in a long menacing flirtation with the informant (Lou Diamond Phillips) or that he later kidnaped her, ripped her clothes and fondled her in a cockfight ring, before dumping her off the next day. Or that she never mentioned this episode to anybody.

Other implausibilities follow: live candid camera exposes, Judas goat shoot-outs in crowded restaurants and the presence of Irving’s character at almost every significant event over the six-year span of the story, except the actual shoot-out. Even if it all is true, as shown here, it doesn’t ring true. And the absurdity of the possible inventions almost taints the portrayal of the real-life murders and cover-up, which seem all too believable.

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The director, Bruno Barreto, has a creamy romantic style. But his flair for evocative, sunny backgrounds and eroticism may be part of the trouble. He’s so good at whipping up a sensual atmosphere that he may be impatient with the cool, clear, scary narrative line the movie needs. Perhaps he’s torn between pleasuring us and showing us the face of oppression.

Barreto seems to hook into the film better visually than verbally. He and Amy Irving became a couple during filming, but he often seems uncomfortable with the English language dialogue, even though his actors include Irving, Phillips, Andy Garcia as a relentless prosecutor, Robert Duvall as a sort of turncoat Lou Grant and Kevin Spacey as a sinister, apocryphal FBI agent, who announces, improbably, “I’m one of the good guys!”

With dialogue like this, perhaps Barreto should be uncomfortable. Co-written by producer John Strong and that usually fine scenarist Evan Jones, some of it is punchy and vivid; most of it preaches woodenly to the converted. “A Show of Force” (MPAA rated R for sex, language and violence) might actually play better subtitled, in a foreign language. In many ways, it’s a brave film, but it tries too hard to cover itself. Like the Puerto Rican government that fell because of Cerro Maravilla, it stumbles on surfaces, gets too fixated on public image.


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