The Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal always seems on the lookout for movies with a message. And in films such as “No,” about an ad writer who concocts a strategy for defeating the Chilean dictatorship at the polls, or “Babel” or “The Motorcycle Diaries” or “Rosewater,” that paid off.
But with “Ardor,” about an avenger protecting threatened peasant farmers from the murderous predations of Big Ag, that instinct lets him down. A cheat of a thriller about rescuing a young farm woman (Alice Braga) after hired thugs make her father sign over his land at gunpoint, then kill him and kidnap her, it pitches itself as something more mystical and higher-minded than it actually is.
The “cheat” begins with the opening titles, a myth about “beings” summoned by jungle people to aid them against “invaders.” Then we see those invaders — mercenaries (Claudio Tolcachir plays their leader, Tarquinho ) who lose one of their number (or a hostage) to some savage jungle beast.
“Tiger,” Tarquinho says, in subtitled Spanish. “Jaguar” he meant to say.
He and his small band of lightly-armed murderers visit jungle farmers, force them to sign over their land and commit the occasional atrocity just for fun.
Kai (Bernal), the Bare Chested Avenger, walks up to such a farm. He has mysterious tattoos on his back and legs. The farmer (Chico Diaz) warns him, “They will come.”
“Good,” Kai replies. But when the men come, he is no help. All he can do is hide, and set out to free the farmer’s kidnapped daughter (Braga) before the inevitable rape scene.
There’s nothing mystical or mysterious about what follows. Kai strains to outwit and outfight the kidnapper/murderers. The daughter yearns to have sex with him after she is almost raped by the bad guys.
As the story unravels, the action beats take over. A farmstead firefight is arrestingly staged like an Old West (movie) showdown. And Bernal broods, brawls and tells us bits of his story, how he came to be this Shirtless Shane of Amazonia.
“Ardor,” in the end, has little ardor, or originality or magic about it. It’s just a mundane C-movie action picture that tries to pass itself off as something deeper.
MPAA Rating: R for violence, some gruesome images and a scene of sexuality
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Alice Braga, Claudio Tolcachir
Credits: Written and directed by Pablo Fendrik. A Participant release.
Running time: 1:41