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This is no action movie, and Dafoe is no Scotsman

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In the summer of 2000, a young man by the name of Sandro do Nascimento took 11 hostages on a Rio de Janeiro city bus after a blown robbery attempt. What unfolded, as well as an exploration of the precursory events that made this tragedy ultimately unavoidable, makes up Bus 174, a riveting piece of documentary filmmaking by Brazilian director Jose Padilha.

            Credit for this film must also be given to the Rio police force, whose spectacular ineptness in securing the crime scene allowed the media shocking access to both images and sound from the Bus 174 affair, which played out on live television.

            Mr. Padilha takes this footage and threads it through interviews with law enforcement, journalists, criminals, social workers, and the former hostages in order to tell Sandro's story and shine a light on larger problems facing Brazil --- most notably epidemic homelessness, gross police incompetence, and horrifying prison conditions.

            The serene flyover shots of gorgeous Rio that open Bus 174 belie the hardship that simmers beneath its sunny surface. Sandro was one of thousands of Rio street kids --- young people who must find creative and often violent ways to stay alive. A drug addict and prison escapee, Sandro never knew his father, saw his pregnant mother stabbed to death, and was a witness at the 1993 Candelaria Church massacre which left seven of his peers dead at the hands of undercover cops.

            That he would subsequently --- and inadvertently --- realize his oft-told dream of becoming famous is sadly not surprising.

            "This ain't no action movie!" Sandro reminds Brazil during the four-hour standoff. The police stand around looking alternately bored and helpless while they cope with the scariest kind of hijacker --- the one who doesn't want anything in particular. 

            Their frustration is apparent in the interviews in which they bemoan the absence of police radios at the scene (!) and their inability to let the police snipers do their job because of orders from on high that Sandro be taken into custody alive.

            The strangely sympathetic former hostages, however, saw Sandro as a frightened, probably strung-out kid who got in over his head and didn't actually have it in him to kill anyone --- sentiments echoed by social workers, family and others who knew him.

            The actual viewing experience of Bus 174 can be confusing at times. It's hard to know where to look. Not only is the film subtitled, but there are unnecessary title cards, the initial identification of the interviewees, and the occasional time code from the raw footage of the hijacking. But as the film reaches its jaw-dropping yet inevitable conclusion, the words become superfluous and the pictures break your heart.

Willem Dafoe has always creeped me out. The one exception is his performance as Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire, where he still made my skin crawl, though for the right reasons. I put the heebie-jeebies aside as I watched The Reckoning, the film that answers the burning question, "What would it be like if the Scooby gang investigated murder and necrophiliac sodomy instead of the haunting of an abandoned theme park?"

            Set in 14th-century England, The Reckoning focuses on a clergyman on the lam who joins up with a band of traveling actors as they make their way to their next gig. The group gets embroiled in the death of a young man and the fate of the woman accused of taking his life. What follows is your garden-variety cover-up that goes higher than anyone thought, and more deaths. All of this is brought to light Hamlet-like: The troupe puts on a show about the murder in hopes of eliciting the truth from the close-mouthed locals.

            Shot in England and Spain, The Reckoning is certainly a good-looking film. At times it looks like Braveheart crossed with REM's video for "Losing My Religion." But the beauty on the screen wasn't enough to distract me from the script (sample dialogue: "I have nothing to lose!" "Except your life.") that somehow managed to get dumber as the movie wore on. The big confrontation scene used a bunch of words and said exactly nothing. It left me wondering if I had time to get to Stever's for more bridge mix.

            Willem Dafoe still creeps me out. He's joined here by some top-notch talent from the UK, including Paul Bettany (most recently screwed out of an Oscar nomination for Master and Commander), Gina McKee (most recently woefully underused in this movie) and the great character actor Brian Cox, who gets to trot out his delightful brogue here. Normally that would be cool, but unfortunately it serves to bring attention to Dafoe's now-you-hear-it-now-you-don't-and-when-you-do-it's-appalling attempt at a Scottish accent.

            I have a trusty formula that I often invoke when watching this particular kind of movie: Biggest Star + Smallest Part = Bad Guy. I knew the minute I saw a certain someone's name on the screen that we would eventually be treated to a scenery-chewing soliloquy about how he would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling itinerant players.

            But I love this actor --- he's dangerous, hot, and sometimes hammy. But he seems to get saddled with the swaggering heavy role every time out. On the off chance he picks up this review: Please choose more wisely in the future, mon ami. And call me.

Bus 174 (NR) and The Reckoning (R) are showing at the Little Theatres for one week only, Friday, April 2, through Thursday, April 8.

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