YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


`Cortez': Noir by the numbers

Tough guys, a damaged protagonist and a mysterious dame converge in Reno.

October 20, 2006|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times

Genre films, like gold mines, can be beguiling traps. They have built-in audiences and inviting templates. The challenge is to do something new with them, or perhaps enliven the familiar experience with clever dialogue and memorable performances. "El Cortez" is a Nevada noir set in a Reno hotel whose night clerk is a mildly autistic ex-con. Throw in drug deals, shady cops and modern gold prospecting and you have a film that digs hard but misses the vein.

The movie follows the basic rules of film noir, to its detriment. There's the damaged protagonist with a dark past, the usual array of tough guys and schemers, and, of course, the beautiful girl who is either a damsel in distress or a femme fatale. We instantly know the past will catch up with various folks, and most participants are not what they seem.

Lou Diamond Phillips, a real-life spokesman for an autism organization, gives an earnest performance as the clerk, Manny. Unfortunately, his characterization is uneven, like an accent occasionally dropped at moments of high emotion. And his "Sling Blade"/"Forrest Gump" pseudo-simpleton suddenly becomes a Fabio/Valentino red-hot lover when the clothes come off for sweaty sex.

It is good to see James McDaniel shed his nice-guy image from those years on "NYPD Blue"; here he's intimidating as a manipulative cop with an explosive temper. L.A. stage veteran Tracy Middendorf turns in strong work as good girl/bad girl Theda, a mix of vulnerability and conniving sexuality. And cinematographer Robert F. Smith seems to get the most out of what he has, contributing significantly to the film's moody ambience.

Chris Haddock's script, however, gets lost in search of surprises, finding only a forehead-slapping ending. It mostly avoids clumsy exposition but also leaves out key facts. For instance, Manny's affliction is never delineated -- it's only explained in the press notes that he is a "high-functioning autistic." Because there are important questions about his sanity and repercussions of his refusal to take medication, this is a glaring omission.

Also, perhaps in an effort to root the film in the genre, the dialogue reaches for a particular hard-boiled register but grasps only cliches.

"El Cortez," like so many before it, searches for that nugget in the genre mine but just doesn't find it.


`El Cortez'

MPAA rating: Unrated

A Brazos Pix release. Director Stephen Purvis. Writer Chris Haddock. Producers Purvis, Dennis Bishop. Director of photography Robert F. Smith. Editor Bob Allen. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

Exclusively at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

Los Angeles Times Articles