Sunday 22 November 2009

Turistas (2006)

Director: John Stockwell
Stars: Josh Duhamel, Melissa George, Olivia Wilde, Desmond Askew, Beau Garrett, Max Brown, Agles Steib and Miguel Lunardi
A bunch of hot looking tourists are riding a Rapidao bus through gorgeous Brazilian countryside: a cosmopolitan bunch of Americans, Brits and Australians. Most of them are loving the experience that the apparently insane local driver is giving them, weaving round the country roads a little too quickly for comfort, especially when the local bikini clad girls reach up for luggage right in front of them. The only one who seems to be upset about it is Alex, an American guy who didn't even want to be there in the first place. He's sure that they're headed for destruction and so they are, the bus tumbling off a cliff with just enough time for the passengers to leap clear.

Fortunately Pru, an Australian girl travelling alone, speaks Portuguese so they find out a little of what's going on. They're faced with a ten hour wait for a replacement bus with fellow travellers who they've already upset by taking pictures of their kids. Apparently this is viewed with suspicion here because of the frequency of foreigners travelling to Brazil to acquire organs from such children for transplant back home. So they decide instead to head down to the beach where there's a bar. This is so close to their personal visions of paradise that they don't want to leave. They swim and frolic, drink and dance, meet up with a couple of Swedes who are just as gorgeous as they are. Life is not just good, it's become a tourist's dream, and the bus accident is soon forgotten.

They get so caught up in the excitement and we get so caught up in their excitement that we almost forget that we're watching a horror movie. It's all done well, but it's just a bunch of gorgeous kids having the time of their lives and we can't help but wonder why it's padded out so long. Well, we soon discover the reason for that: contrast. They're not just imbibing copious amounts of drinks, they're also imbibing copious amounts of whatever knockout drugs the bartender has slipped into those drinks. She seemed ever so friendly, but like the other ever so friendly local girl whose sexual favours turned out to require payment, she has her own ulterior motives.

By the time morning arrives, the tourists find themselves robbed of everything except the clothes on their backs. Even the rings on their fingers are gone, let alone their money and their passports. The Swedes have been carried away already, bound and hung from poles, only to escape and meet quick deaths. The rest traipse into town, which turns out to be a picture of poverty, the other notable contrast to the paradise of the night before. There they see some of their possessions, bikes outside houses, hats on children's heads, and they find Kiko too, a local who partied with them the night before and who is studying English. He's both their doom and their salvation though we have to wait quite some time to work out which.

There's very little opportunity to build character here, with Zamora, the master villain of the piece, really the only one given much depth. He has motivation and will and opportunity and he's someone who could easily be discussed and debated at length. Nobody else really gets much of a chance to show who they are, though Desmond Askew and Melissa George impress. They're merely Amy and Bea, a couple of American friends; Alex, Bea's brother who's only there to protect her; Finn and Liam, a couple of Brits who like girls, beaches and drinking; and Pru, an experienced traveller from down under. Even Kiko gets more opportunity than these to play with his motivations and actually progress as a character.

So much of this film becomes a wait, admittedly a tense one but a wait nonetheless to see where writer Michael Ross is taking these trusting tourists and us with them. There is a deep moral question at the heart of this film, wrapped up in the character of Zamora, who's played with chilling matter-of-factness by Brazilian actor Miguel Lunardi in his only English language film. Yet even this doesn't get much opportunity to flourish, so we're left pretty much entirely with the ride. Fortunately as rides go this has much to recommend it. It certainly doesn't feel like any American horror film I've ever seen and the only comparison I could come up with was with the French/Romanian film Them.

Both films feel authentic because they were filmed entirely on location in foreign countries, this time Brazil, and both show us gorgeous countryside and the results of extreme poverty. Both films are notably tense, Them coming out on top generally but Turistas benefitting from some wonderfully claustrophobic scenes, shot underwater in the caves at Chapada Diamantina in the Bahia province. Both films have simple yet believable storylines along with excellent and enticing cinematography, thus bizarrely turning their settings somewhere we both want to visit right now and yet don't ever want to go anywhere near. However neither film has much actual substance for us to want to revisit them, unless it's for their feel and tone. At least Them had a kicker of an ending.

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