John Sayles, a filmmaker by trade, a provocateur by nature, means to stir things up with Amigo. That he does, and more power to him. Sayles stands pretty much alone in a play-it-safe movie summer of 3D gimmicks and numbing comedies. Amigo looks at American imperialism through the United States occupation of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. Don’t feel too out of it. History books generally gloss over the guerilla war that ignited (and lasted until 1913) when the U.S. annexed the colonial Philippines during the Spanish-American War. Sayles extracted the Philippine story from his larger-scaled novel, A Moment in the Sun. And because he’s a true indie in terms of tight budget and unlimited spirit, the writer-director focuses – not on jumbo battles and body count – but on life in a village (San Isidro) torn apart by the conflict.
Filipino actor Joel Torre excels as Rafael, a village honcho who tries to play amigo with the occupiers led by sympathetic Lt. Compton (the excellent Garret Dillahunt) and his racist commander, Col. Hardacre (the reliably superb Chris Cooper). This alienates Rafael’s brother, Simon (Ronnie Lazaro), leader of the rebels, and sets up a conflict that draws potent parallels to Iraq and Afghanistan. With so much history to cram into 128 minutes (plus dialogue in English, Spanish, and Tagalog), Sayles occasionally slips into dogma and reductivism. But why fault a filmmaker for ambition, a word that strikes fear and loathing in Hollywood. After 17 movies starting with his acclaimed 1980 debut, Return of the Secaucus Seven, Sayles still sees the world as a complicated whole with humanity unrestricted by borders. Amigo is combustible filmmaking, something that stays with you long after the final credits. In an entertainment universe of escapism and short attention spans, Amigo is a rousing antidote and a cause for celebration.