Left-leaning director John Sayles’s unapologetic politics have inspired near masterpieces, such as “Matewan” (1987), and near disasters, such as “City of Hope” (1991). In his latest film, he’s dropped the polemics and settled in for a more-or-less conventional combination of crime story, family melodrama, and buddy film. Though fitfully entertaining, it lacks the conviction and urgency present in even the weakest of his quasi agit-prop productions.
Come to think of it, his new film kind of resembles one of its three main characters, Freddy Suárez (Edward James Olmos). A latter-day Rooster Cogburn, he’s a disgraced former LAPD detective, once nicknamed “The Terminator.” Now in debt-ridden limbo, he’s lost a step or two since his prime. He’s grown a pot belly, and swapped most of his ideals for a banal cynicism. Most embarrassing, his eyes are failing him, so whenever he reads a map or shoots a gun he resembles Mr. Magoo more than Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Nonetheless, he’s the guy former BFFs Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) and Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) turn to when Bernice’s troubled son Rodney (McKinley Belcher III) is kidnapped by a Chinese gang from Mexico. The Mexican gangs are bad enough, but the Chinese-Mexican gangs are real trouble. One look at their honcho, Mother Han (Elizabeth Sung), smiling pleasantly while peddling trinkets at her Tijuana kiosk, and your blood will run cold.
Despite such perils, the trio’s trip south of the border allows a lot of down time, during which the characters can chat and reveal their backstories. For example, though they were from opposite sides of the tracks, Bernice and Fontayne were so close as kids that people said they could “go for sisters” (so that’s what the title means). However, Fontayne, who came from a broken family, was so jealous of Bernice’s happy home that she stole Bernice’s boyfriend, ending their friendship. Now, 20 years later, Fontayne is a recovering addict, and Bernice had been working as her parole officer when this Rodney thing came up and Bernice had to ask for Fontayne’s help. Funny how ironic life can be, especially when simulated by a screenwriter who doesn’t seem to be trying too hard.
Fortunately, they make it to Tijuana before the clumsy background exposition runs out, but their attempts to track down the whereabouts of Rodney suggest a certain lack of commitment and expertise. Let’s just say that a visit from Liam Neeson’s character in “Taken” (2008) would not be unwelcome. Though Sayles has shown skill before with generic filmmaking (his screenplay for Joe Dante’s 1978 bloodfest “Piranha” is a mini-masterpiece), here he seems lost without an agenda to guide him.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.