In his first Spanish-language film, American comedian/actor John Leguizamo plays an oily news reporter working for a Latin tabloid TV show in Miami. Manolo Bonilla (Leguizamo) is a good-looking, fast-talking media-age vampire, winging his way through South America looking for blood to suck. He finds a plentiful supply in Ecuador where a serial killer known as “The Monster of Babahoyo” has raped and murdered dozens of young children.
The film begins with Bonilla and his crew, producer Marisa (Leonor Watling) and cameraman Ivan (José María Yazpik), hovering around a graveyard, hoping to score an interview with the family of the killer's latest victim. Acting like a creepy child stalker himself, Bonilla seduces the dead boy's twin brother into giving an interview. Before the camera can roll, however, the boy runs off distracted and is accidentally hit and killed by the pickup truck of traveling salesman Vinicio (Damián Alcázar). Enraged, the dead boy's father drags Vinicio out of his vehicle. With the help of several grief-mad parents, Vinicio is nearly beaten to death and burned alive.
All but gleeful at his good fortune, Bonilla keeps his cameras rolling. Only when Vinicio's pregnant wife shows up on the scene does Bonilla enter the fray. Vicinio is saved from some misguided mob justice, and Bonilla (thanks to some judicious editing) looks like the hero of the day. It's the sort of slam-bang opening sequence that leaves audiences dry-mouthed and wondering what's in store for them.
Shortly after the brutal incident at the graveyard, Bonilla is called to Vicinio's prison cell. Vicinio wants, desperately, to get out of jail. The father of the boy he accidentally killed is in a cell across from him and--thanks to the corrupt South American penal system--can probably kill him any time he wants. But Bonilla's story is over and done with. He's got an important interview with some hostages held by the Medellin cartel in Colombia. What's the point of sticking with Vicinio's story? But Vicinio offers up a tempting tidbit: He knows who the Monster of Babahoyo is. Now Bonilla is willing to listen.
Sensing a story, Bonilla puts off his Colombia trip for a few days and tries to wheedle more information out of Vicinio. Of course, there are three possibilities here. One is that Vicinio is making all of this up in a desperate bid to get out of jail. Another is that Vicinio is telling the honest truth, in which case Bonilla is about to crack the biggest story of his career. But the third possibility is that Vicinio is himself the Monster of Babahoyo and playing a dangerous Hannibal Lecter-style mind game with Bonilla. Which is an even better story.
Crónicas is an ambitious blend of elements. Though it's structured like a serial killer thriller, the film also wants to function as an ugly exposé of modern media and its constant need for bigger and bloodier stories. Leguizamo is pitch-perfect with his good hair and his self-absorbed mixture of English and Spanish. It's his best role since the underrated Summer of Sam. He doesn't portray Bonilla as an evil, manipulative slimebag willing to make up stories. But his character is shown to be an egotistical charmer with a sliding morality scale who isn't above massaging a story here and there to make it more suitable for prime time play.
If only Ecuadorian filmmaker Sebastián Cordero didn't end up using his film's “thriller” elements as a crutch. The film waffles between a thoroughly gritty examination of media corruption and a somewhat predictable crime film. The tension is never particularly high, and the film's loyalties end up feeling split. By the time the film reaches its queasy, morally ambiguous end, viewers can be forgiven for feeling a little confused. Though Cordero seems to slam the media pretty hard for its lurid interests, he still wants to turn his film into a twisty and salacious whodunnit.
Crónicas is a bold, well-made film that's either too enamored with its own smarts to be a perfect thriller or too distracted by its own thrills to be totally perceptive. Still, the script is different and the actors are solid, with Damián Alcázar's low-key, sad-sack, is-he-or-isn't-he? performance dictating much of the film's pace. The film looks incredibly slick as well and could very likely be Cordero's calling card to Hollywood, sending him following in the footsteps of such South of the Border cineastes as Guillermo del Toro, Alphonso Cuarón and Walter Salles.