Crime lord Julian Perez’s (Miguel Rodarte) mother Elvira (Isela Vega, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) demands just one thing from her estranged son: the rescue of his younger, honest, USMC brother who has disappeared in Iraq. To accomplish this seemingly impossible mission, Perez assembles a group of experts: Chema (Jesus Ochoa, Quantum of Solace), a veteran of Vietnam and an expert strategist; Rosalio (Joaquin Cosio, Quantum of Solace), the best smuggling pilot in Mexico and a master at flying at extremely low altitudes to avoid detection; Pumita (Rodrigo Oviedo), a hit man so deadly, even Perez fears him (though he would never admit it); and Carmelo (Gerardo Taracena, The Mexican) , Julian’s childhood friend who’s left the drug business to grow tomatoes. Julian uses his contacts and wealth to smuggle his team into Iraq from Turkey, but once “in country” can these fish-0ut-of-water tough guys survive long enough to find Pvt. Perez before he is executed by his captors?
Saving Private Perez is an action comedy whose action is (mostly) pedestrian gun and fist fights and whose comedy is (often) old hat. The basic action wouldn’t be as much of a downside if the team distinguished itself more. Despite their skills, our heroes fight interchangeably (although Chema is constantly rolling and making “commando” movements while giving indecipherable hand signals to his perplexed compatriots). I expected Carmello to do something amazing to justify his inclusion in the team, but the film never got to it. There’s no real attempt to build up anyone the team fights as a serious menace, or to really give the team’s opponents much personality of any kind. The comedy features many cliches and broad stereotypes (Mexicans add hot sauce to everything and their food is so hot it can be used as to torture; Russians are crazy and corrupt; Americans are trigger happy and overloaded with firepower). This is not to say that the comedy is without its moments. While the film is still in Mexico and spoofing crime film cliches, comedy is often hilarious, from the outrageous outfits of the Mexican drug lords to the moment when Rosalio is recruited in, of all things, a giant shrimp costume. Despite the old jokes and sentimentality, the characters grow on the audience and the corny jokes, like the team’s battle cry of “TOMATO!”, become amusing.
Sometimes a film gets enormous mileage just by coming from a different perspective than we are used to, and this is certainly the case with Saving Private Perez. While Perez is not particularly innovative, its satire of action, crime and “special mission” war movies comes from outside of Hollywood, and is refreshing. You’ve seen plenty of crime films featuring Mexican drug lords, but how many times have you seen that culture depicted by Mexican filmmakers? For the American viewer, some moments are hard to parse. The old-timers mock Pumita for his tattoos and pretty boy style, and I could not tell if I was supposed to take their taunts to literally mean he started out as a street hustler (i.e. should we take their calling him a “punk” literally) or that he’s a homosexual, or is this just old fat guys mocking a “pretty boy” with up-to-date style? I don’t know enough about the culture to say for sure. The “commentary” on the war in Iraq-oil, no one wins, the Americans shoot first and ask questions later-is as shallow as it gets, and where it intersects with Mexican patriotism, perhaps insultingly so (are we really to believe that Narcos are more likely to chivalrously save wounded women and children than either the U.S. military or the various insurgent groups in Iraq, or is that just part of the commentary/joke?). The film loses a lot of its spark and wit once the team is fighting its way through Iraq and the joke of a bunch of Mexican tough guys in cowboy hats and boots, loud shirts and wide belts with huge buckles fighting against the U.S. Military and insurgents wears off. While the film falters when trying to make larger statements, Saving Private Perez is refreshing (and, early on, funny) enough that it’s well worth a look by those looking for a comedy with something different.