Painted in the colors of rust, Alejandro González Iñarritu's Amores Perros is a hard-edged epic of interconnected lives in the mean streets of Mexico City. This has become a popular trend in independent films such as Wonderland and The Five Senses, not to mention big-budget blockbusters like Traffic. By blending different scenarios, there's the hope of creating a mass collage. It's not as easy to pull off as you might think -- consider the rhythm of your standard daytime soap opera.
The concept of three juxtaposed narratives, at least in the "flavor of the month" sense, can be traced to Quentin Tarantino, as can the gunslinging desperados and pop music that have become the humdrum trademark of Pulp Fiction imitators. Iñarritu is content to simply rehash those familiar elements. Perhaps that's why so much of this Academy Award nominated foreign film comes off like a movie you've seen more than once, translated a Español.
Despite the cinematic and structural predictability and an exhausting three hour running time, Amores Perros finds surprising flickers of humanity within the dead-end lives of ex-convicts, losers, young lovers on the lam, and hired gunmen. These almost-heroes are driven by an unfinished business of the heart, most notably the mysterious phantom hobo, El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría). He's a contract killer (yes, a homeless contract killer -- it's not played for laughs) for some elusive businessmen, but his attention is drawn away by an unexpected obituary notice that triggers memories of his long shrouded past. This sort of thing only happens in the movies, but let's cut Iñarritu some slack here.
El Chivo lurks throughout the other two stories, but only in his exclusive section (the final third of the film) does the heart and soul of Amores Perros emerge. Retribution is not seen as an easy mark, and Iñarritu puts to one side the cheap violence and sadistic humor of his previous tales, replacing it with the empathetic sorrow of a distant love ballad. Poetic and slighty cheeseball, but oh so sweet.
It's almost too little too late. Example: one of the parallel stories follows a young buck (Gael García Bernal) attempting to raise money to run away from home with his beloved sister-in-law (Vanessa Bauche). He finds a financially lucrative solution in pitting the family pet in a series of blood soaked dogfights. For all its combustive energy, it's a one-note tragedy as he makes enemies of his brother and the local goon squad. Things fall apart in a predictable hail of tears and bloodshed.
The other subplot steals images wholesale from Krzysztof Kieslowski, presenting the arid relationship of a frivolous supermodel, Valeria (Goya Toledo) and her boyfriend, a successful businessman (Alvaro Guerrero). The building block poster of Valeria across the street from her dream home is a direct lift from Red (in which Irene Jacob played a petulant model, natch). When she is hospitalized in a terrible car accident, the event that brings all of Amores Perros' characters together, it forces her to reevaluate her empty life. It'd be sad if she weren't such an annoying phony.
The title, Amores Perros, directly translates as "Love's a Bitch." Meaning, life stinks. It also means, literally, that love is a female dog. That explains the constant presence of mutts throughout. El Chivo is surrounded by runaway scamps, the supermodel has a pampered pooch, and the young buck has his attack dog. It sounds a little too neat -- and it is, really -- but the canines provide our nasty heroes someone who they can relate to with unconditional affection.
That unabashed sentiment bridges Amores Perros through the hyperkinetic overdrive of whiplash images, smash cuts, and the pulsating cacophony of street noises on the audio track. It's too much. In his eager passion to fill Amores Perros with explosive imagery, Iñarritu nearly drowns his audience in visual excess. If he doesn't watch out, he'll turn into Ridley Scott.
Let's hope not. This fresh new filmmaker does make the most of his locations, finding the epitome of downbeat urban squalor (you can almost taste the mined-in dirt), but he should have listened to Dennis Hopper's advice in Tarantino's True Romance: "Slooooooow it down, man!" He's got an eye for the strong visuals representative of the overcrowded, noisy, polluted excess of Mexico City. Now all he needs is a steady gaze.
The DVD release of the film is surprisingly unsteady -- a blindingly fast-spoken Spanish-language commentary track doesn't do much for most of us, and the deleted scenes don't look much different than the non-deleted scenes (and do we really need another 20 minutes of this movie?). Even the documentaries about the creation of the big car crash and the training of the attack dogs come off as tired.
To the dogs, hombre.