There’s a hardnosed, cynical and downbeat political thriller straining to get out in “Black Beach,” a Spanish film about First World corruption and Third World strife.
It’s a bit of a slog, frustrating and convoluted. The filmmakers can’t gracefully extract themselves from a story that wants to get to its point and end a lot sooner than it does.
But it has virtues worth recognizing and a taut, tense and bloody chase scene through an African slum that will put you on the edge of your seat.
Here’s the take-away from it — it’s a direct evocation of “white privilege” and its echoes in “white man’s burden” Africa.
As Carlos Furster, Raúl Arévalo portrays of man of confidence born of privilege, bravery built on untouchability. He’s the son of a U.N. High Commissioner (Paulina García), an NGO-trained negotiator, now a globe-trotting fixer for Big Oil.
When he’s ordered back to Africa to mediate a hostage situation in a country where he used to work, a nation under a UN embargo but with a big oil deal in the works, he gives no hint that he’s out of his depth.
Carlos knows the principals — the “president” (Emilio Buale), the alleged “leader” of a revolutionary faction (Jimmy Castro) — and the lay of the land. His past gives him contacts that will, he is sure, get him to the hostage and make this all go away without reigniting a civil war.
In this violent place, where people are dying or just disappearing right and left, where leadership lives in utter opulence while most live in slums, Carlos struts around as if he’s bullet proof. Because he is.
Provide him with a Ferrari, give him access to generals, and he all but runs roughshod over the locals in pursuit of his goal. He goes nose-to-nose, threatening the warden at the infamous seaside prison that gives the movie its title — “Black Beach.”
Offer him cocaine, as the president does in a friendly chat, and he’ll take it. Whatever he once was, Carlos finished selling out years ago.
Now he has absolute immunity and utter impunity as he swaggers hither and yon, looking for his old friend Calixto, tracking him through the man’s wife Ada, not considering what his search might reap.
Carlos may be married with a baby on the way. But back in the day, Ada (Aída Wellgaye) was his in-country girlfriend. Now she’s the key to reaching Calixto, finding the hostage and settling all this without violence and the bad optics that will be in the media.
Or so Carlos figures. But right in the middle of his bull-in-the-china-shop search, he picks up on what we cannot miss. People are dying all around him. People he tracks down meet untimely ends.
Nobody in authority will touch the white guy, but every African he arm-twists is instantly imperiled. Carlos is European interference in Africa in a single character. He is good intentions with sinister underpinnings, and eventually even he sees it.
Arévalo (“Marshland,” Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory”) lets us see Carlos transform from a guy working the angles and angling for that New York promotion to somebody who finally turns around to see the destruction in his wake.
Candela Peña plays the guide and former NGO pal Ade, who could be the conscience that he’s forgotten he had. Claude Musungayi is the silky smooth-talking Afro-French boss who dangles that promotion and pays a lot of lip service to his Man in Africa’s safety and future.
Director and co-writer Esteban Crespo (“Amar”) complicates the script to the point of distraction and frustrates the viewer with all the promising possibilities we recognize from other such thrillers (“The Constant Gardener,” “Under Fire,” “The Year of Living Dangerously”) that he refuses to mimic.
The old love story, the “past” that comes back to haunt the hero, the compromises he sees himself making, all are left underdeveloped in this misshapen thriller that rarely gets up the urgency it needs to come off.
But the big chase through the slums, staged on the film’s Canary Islands set, is a bracing suggestion of the thriller that might have been.
The high stakes were always there. The way the film beats around the bush in showing them makes us see that it’s not just Carlos, but the filmmakers making a movie out of his story who are very slow to pick up on that.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, violence, profanity
Cast: Raúl Arévalo, Paulina García, Lidia Nené, Candela Peña, Claude Musungayi, Melina Matthews, Emilio Buale and Aída Wellgaye
Credits: Directed by Esteban Crespo, script by Esteban Crespo, David Moreno. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:56