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Making a splash with a smaller ensemble piece

'Ladrón' merges a telenovela and heist plot to better effect than a certain big-budget film.

August 31, 2007|Michael Phillips | Chicago Tribune

The jaunty heist picture "Ladrón Que Roba a Ladrón" (A Thief Who Steals From a Thief) almost makes up for the season's previous attempt at a jaunty heist picture, "Ocean's Thirteen," which you may have liked but which I found smug. Some movies leave you feeling like a mugging victim; after that one, I felt smugged.

On a fraction of the budget and with an actual sociological detail or two tucked inside its plot, "Ladrón" glides along on the strength of its multiethnic ensemble. The key cast members have made a good living in telenovelas. Mostly in Spanish with English subtitles, the film was produced by, among others, James McNamara, former head of the Telemundo network. As McNamara catalogs it, "Ladrón" was written by a Mexican American; directed by a Cuban American; produced by a Panamanian, a Colombian and a Mexican American; scored by a Venezuelan; and stars actors from Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Argentina and the United States. For once, a plausible ethnic range of Angelenos, playing Angelenos!

But this is no documentary. We're strictly in the land of myth, of gentlemen thieves who live by a code of honor. Old friends Emilio and Alejandro (Miguel Varoni and Fernando Colunga) team up to fleece a corrupt TV infomercial guru who makes his millions peddling bogus cancer-curing bracelets and greasy weight-loss cream to Latinos everywhere. With the mark in place, the masterminds assemble a motley crew of immigrant day laborers as their gang. These working-class heroes -- valets, mechanics and others -- have little trouble posing as "the help" at the hilltop mansion of Mr. Big, guest of honor at his own Hispanic Businessman of the Year party. The gold's in the basement vault. But not for long.

"Ladrón" plays like a telenovela without the melodrama. The characters are brightly drawn archetypes, and the humor's very broad. But the tone is nice and brash. At one point, a racist Anglo growls to one of the thieves posing as a janitor, "Learn English!" Response, on the run: "You're in America! Learn Spanish!"

The film also has its share of eye candy. Gabriel Soto, a former Mister World contestant, plays the guy who digs the tunnel to the gold underneath the mansion. When mechanic Rafaela, played by the wonderful Ivonne Montero, wipes off the grease and slips into something dressier, the cohorts eye each other and it's stars and bells.

Joe Menendez directs this genial lark. His TV credits include "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol" and "Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide," and though there's nothing flashy or complex about the way Menendez works with crowds or lays out a suspense sequence, he keeps everybody in the same movie. Likewise, screenwriter Jojo Henrickson doesn't dazzle us with his narrative maneuvers. But it's refreshing to see a bit of escapism that takes place in contemporary Southern California as seen, and lived, by those uninterested in aping the "Ocean's Thirteen" vibe of ice-coolness.

"Ladrón Que Roba a Ladrón." MPAA rating: PG-13 for language and some sexual content. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. In selected theaters.

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