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Herod's Law


Herod's Law


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Though its release was nearly sabotaged by the government, the blunt Mexican satire Herod's Law hit theaters just months before the landmark 2000 election that knocked the corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) out of office after more than 70 years in power. The film could rightly be called the final nail in the coffin, which may explain why co-writer and director Luis Estrada so often wields a hammer when a more delicate tool might have done the trick. Cynicism can be a friend to comedy when kept under control, but Estrada's disgust with the ruling party turns into a poisonous bile that seeps into his initially promising scenario, robbing it of its corrosive humor and all but the most obvious ironies. Paying homage to Orson Welles' noir classic Touch Of Evil, its partner in spirit, the dynamite opening finds a fat-cat mayor (and Welles lookalike, no less) fleeing rural San Pedro de los Saguaros in 1949, forced out by the angry villagers he fleeced during his term. Left with an open seat–three of the last five mayors have been assassinated by the populace–the PRI leadership recruits junkyard proprietor Damián Alcázar for the post, banking on his naivete in accepting the condemned outpost. At first, Alcázar seems intent on bringing "modernity and social justice" to San Pedro, but with a mere seven pesos in the budget, he quickly discovers that bribes, blackmail, gratuitous fines, and other abuses of authority are the only way to get things done. Following his predecessors' wayward path, Alcázar involves himself with numerous seedy characters, including a surly madam (Isela Vega), a mercenary priest (Guillermo Gil), and an opportunistic gringo, played with amusing verve by Alex Cox (director of Repo Man and Sid & Nancy). Before Alcázar discovers the political savvy that precipitates his lust for money and power, Herod's Law plays like a Mexican variation on Hal Ashby's Being There, scoring laughs from an innocent's journey through a hopelessly compromised system. (In the film's funniest sequence, one of his first orders of business is to bury a bullet-riddled corpse.) But once Alcázar's conscience slips away from him, any resemblance to the character in the first 15 minutes is purely coincidental. While it's Estrada's point that corruption taints everyone who comes into contact with it, his comic touch stiffens as his hero becomes more immersed in foul play. The angrier the film gets, the less funny it becomes, squelched by heavy-handed polemics, a maddeningly repetitive musical score, and a running time that drags its overriding joke into the ground. The ironic ending might have been potent under other circumstances, but in Estrada's bitter and overdetermined scenario, it's merely business as usual.